At 104, Toko Shinoda talks about a life in art

by

Staff Writer

The concept of 守破離 (shu-ha-ri) has been applied to pursuits of all kinds over the years, including the tea ceremony, noh drama, and various martial and visual arts.

It describes three stages of development in a creative person: 守 (shu) means keeping or adhering to the form and rules of an art by following a teacher without question. 破 (ha) is the point of digression, a willful veering away from the tradition with the intent to explore. Finally, 離 (ri) refers to a transcendent state, achieved through long practice and focus, where the act of creating happens naturally and work of the highest order stems from the deepest roots of the artist’s being.

Although she turned 104 years old on March 28, Toko Shinoda, having passed through shu and ha in her formative years, seems to have been existing comfortably in the ri stage since at least the mid-1960s. A favorite artist of the Imperial Couple and the only living Japanese to be immortalized on a postage stamp, Shinoda remains as immersed in her creative endeavors as ever.

Her work is currently on display at Musee Tomo in Tokyo’s Toranomon neighborhood. Titled “Toko Shinoda: in the autumn of my years…,” the show is supported by the U.S. Embassy and The Japan Times, and includes around 50 works dating from 1958 to the present selected by Norman H. Tolman of The Tolman Collection, Shinoda’s longtime dealer and friend. The exhibition runs through May 29.

“I am surprised that I am still here at 104. I never thought that I would live to be this old, and to think that I am still able to produce works that delight art lovers is in itself rewarding,” Shinoda tells The Japan Times. “I don’t paint on any regular schedule, just when the mood strikes me. Sometimes new forms that I had never thought of until recently seem to come to mind and I try my best to put them down as I see them.”

Born in Dalian, Manchuria, in 1913, she soon moved to Tokyo with her family and began a largely self-guided study of calligraphy. An artistic streak ran in her family, and her great uncle, a carver who fashioned the inkan (personal seal) of Emperor Meiji, passed on a love of poetry and calligraphy through her father.

Shinoda had her first solo calligraphy exhibition in 1936, and by 1945 she was producing abstract work that departed significantly from the rigid forms of traditional brushwork.

She exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1953, before moving to the city in 1956, and remembers the time vividly: “At first I was impressed by the freedom that American artists had. In Japan we used to copy the calligraphy of the masters, but at that time in New York artists were expected to produce something new and different. It was the start of abstract expressionism and artists were called on to bring forth new forms. I was able to paint my work, first based on calligraphy, to new forms and shapes and I think that it happened first in New York and then continued when I came back to Japan.”

After a few years in the U.S. she returned, but her fame here and abroad grew in tandem, and today examples of her prolific output can be found in galleries and private collections worldwide.

Among Shinoda’s more famous quotes is the remark that she is married to her work.

“I never married and have no children,” she says, “and I suppose that it sounds strange to think that my paintings are in place of them — of course they are not the same thing at all. But I do say, when paintings that I have made years ago are brought back into my consciousness, it seems like an old friend, or even a part of me, has come back to see me.”

Although she also works in lithograph, Shinoda often chooses to use brush and sumi ink, exacting materials that don’t afford the luxury of backtracking or revisiting strokes. Where oil painting, like prose writing, is the result of contemplative, cumulative composition, art made with ink is immediate and of the moment, perhaps more akin to playing a musical instrument. The paper instantly drinks the ink, making the medium a superconductor for the intent, even the personality, of the artist. For this reason painting with ink requires great poise, and the act itself is a kind of performance of which the marks become the record.

Shinoda’s lines have a lean economy and together they generate the tremendous tension of stillness pulling against movement. With a few strokes, she pares her expression down to the pith, transmuting beauty with precision wherever she finds it. Like daring feats, her larger works in particular are not to be looked at so much as watched.

The artist confirmed this fact at an impromptu press conference given on her birthday at the opening of the “Autumn years” show.

“My works are all delicate — just one little part keeps it all together. If one line went just a bit wrong, if the color were a little darker, it would not be what I was trying to show. My works are all like that. They are fragile. I cannot create stable, contented, rich kinds of works. I might be able to create one in the future, though.”

Later, seated in front of twin birthday cakes and an attentive crowd, she elaborated: “Every morning, I pick up a brush and do some work, even just a little bit. Without it, I wouldn’t feel quite alive, or I wouldn’t feel like I should be living without doing some work. You could say it’s a sense of responsibility. It’s the proof that I am alive.”

The relationship between Tolman and Shinoda extends back four decades to a time when they happened to live in the same building. Exhibitions of her work almost invariably involve him, and it was at one of these at the Conrad Hotel in Tokyo last year that he was approached by representatives from Kitte, the arm of Japan Post that makes postage stamps.

Soon there were talks to hold a Shinoda show in the new Kitte Nagoya office tower, and somewhere in the give-and-take of negotiation Tolman made an unprecedented request: “You have to make stamps for Toko Shinoda.” They replied that stamps simply are not made for living people. In the end, however, both sides came to an accord — and Shinoda made history. Sheets of nine unique stamps featuring the artist’s work, and one with her portrait, can now be purchased for ¥3,000.

“I think it’s my greatest accomplishment,” says Tolman. “After Shinoda-san there’s no second course; if you have baked Alaska, who wants an eclair?”

“Toko Shinoda: in the autumn of my years…” runs through May 29 at Musee Tomo in Minato-ku, Tokyo (11 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Mondays). For more information, visit www.musee-tomo.or.jp/exhibition_english.html.