Munakata Shiko

Munakata Shiko (棟方 志功, September 5, 1903 – September 13, 1975) was a woodblock printmaker and one of the principal figures in the Mingei (folk art) movement. He was born in Aomori city, Aomori Prefecture in northern Honshu, as the third of 15 children to a local blacksmith. His family was poor so he had only an elementary school education; however, he exhibited a passion for art from early childhood. In third grade, he began illustrating kites for his classmates.

Munakata later claimed that his artistic endeavors were sparked by Vincent van Gogh's (1853–1890) Still Life: Vase with Five Flowers, a reproduction of which he received from his teacher when he was 17. Upon viewing van Gogh's artwork, young Munakata decided that he wanted to become the “van Gogh of Aomori.” In 1924, Munakata moved to Tokyo in order to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional painter.

Munakata's early career was not without obstacles. Unable to sell his paintings, he was forced to repair shoes and sell nattō part-time to survive. He was rejected by the Bunten (The Japan Art Academy Exhibition) four times, until one of his paintings was finally accepted in 1928. However, by this date, his attention had shifted away from oil painting to the traditional Japanese art of woodblock printing.

In 1935, Yanagi Soetsu (1889–1961), the intellectual father of the Mingei movement, saw Munakata's prints at the Kokugakai's annual spring exhibition, and bought twenty-five prints of Yamato shi Uruwashi by Munakata. This event changed Munakata's life. From then on Munakata became closely associated with the folk art movement. 

Munakata's house and most of his woodblocks were destroyed in the American firebombing of Tokyo in May 1945. After World War II, Munakata produced numerous woodblock prints, paintings in watercolor and oil, calligraphy, and illustrated books. He moved his studio to Kamakura in Kanagawa to be closer to Tokyo. He traveled overseas to the United States and Europe in 1959, giving lectures at a number of overseas universities. His works received critical acclaim both in Japan and overseas, and he garnered many prizes, including the "Prize of Excellence" at the Second International Print Exhibition in Lugano, Switzerland, in 1952, and first prize at the São Paulo Bienal Exhibition in Brazil in 1955, followed by Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale in 1956. He was awarded the Order of Culture, the highest honor in the arts, by the Japanese government in 1970. 

Munakata died at his home in Tokyo. His grave is in Aomori, and his gravestone is patterned after that of Vincent van Gogh.