Toko Shinoda

by Vivienne Kenrick

In an interview in the 1960s, artist Toko Shinoda said it was both wonderful and terrible to be driven by something inside. She quoted Japan’s woodblock print artist Hokusai. “I know what he meant when he said that at 75 he could understand a little. If he lived to be 90 he would understand more. And if he could live to be 120, then maybe he could understand.”

On March 28, Toko celebrates her own 90th birthday. A small, dainty, kimonoed lady, she has achieved impressive stature in a wide world of art. In the ’60s she was already a luminary — versatile, distinctive and prolific in her output. Sometimes, in suggestions of the gentleness of her own nature, she used fragile wisps of brushes for her delicate work. Sometimes, acknowledging her certainty and inner strength, in both hands she wielded heavy mops of brushes made from special strands of sheep’s wool. Sometimes she used paper that was made by hand 300 years ago. She gave two sources for the force that drove her. “My family environment, and something in my own heart.”

Toko was born in Manchuria, the fifth of seven children in her family, which returned to Gifu when she was a baby. “My grand-uncle was a very famous seal cutter, a calligrapher-sculptor, of the Meiji period. He made Emperor Meiji’s seal. He had to know calligraphy and Chinese poetry, and he taught both to my father, who taught me,” she said.

She had formal classes in calligraphy in her primary school, where her teacher used vermilion to correct the little girl’s sumi brushwork. Toko said: “Occasionally, I thought the vermilion shades fascinating. Not a model student, however, I often inwardly rebelled against the intruding red.”

Moved to Tokyo, throughout her young womanhood Toko zealously studied traditional calligraphy and “waka” poetry. She began teaching calligraphy, and had her first one-woman exhibition in Tokyo just before the war. During the war she tended toward abstract work, which she developed to international exhibition level over the next period. After two years’ residence in New York, in Tokyo again she turned to lithographs. She became the first female artist to collaborate with architects and with interior designers. Her versatility extended to producing textiles for theater curtains, ceramic reliefs in buildings, etchings in stainless steel for elevator decor. In the year of the Tokyo Olympic Games, she produced the mural for the National Stadium, Yoyogi.

By the time she was 60, Toko might have been considered at the peak of her career. Her work was being displayed in different centers across the world. She was commissioned to make an immense mural for the Zojoji Temple, Tokyo, and several sliding screen paintings for the monks’ exercise hall. She had successful books and essays to her credit. However, Toko continued to soar, and to explore new expressions. She painted on silver ground as well as on white paper and hemp canvas. Recognizably, she included bold vermilion in her black-graded paintings, using cinnabar ink sticks dating back 500 years. She said: “The most important element is my heart, that I try to express through my body and my hands. When I take a brush in my hand, my heart searches for lines, and tries to create forms.”

Represented by the Tolman Collection, since 1976 Toko has been giving one-woman shows of her prints and paintings regularly each year. In 1996 she held a retrospective of her paintings and lithographs in the Singapore Art Museum, becoming the first Japanese artist to receive such an honor in Singapore. Her work is in the collections of some of the world’s most prestigious museums and institutions. Foremost amongst her commissions were a piece for the Emperor of Japan, and another for the grand duchess of Luxembourg.

At 90, whether or not she approaches Hokusai’s hoped-for greater understanding, Toko stays tireless, without classification, alone on her pinnacle. Believing in “a balance between dynamism and traditional elegance,” she said: “Without art I could not live. But art is worth complete dedication.”

For her current monthlong exhibition at the Hara Museum, Tokyo, a range of Toko’s original sumi paintings and lithographs will be shown. Her lithographs are a selection from the last 25 years. Recent paintings that are included have been produced especially for this exhibition, which is entitled “Variations of Vermilion.” Pride of place goes to the painting that has been lent to the exhibition by the Imperial Palace.