Works of a Woman's Hand Toko Shinoda bases new abstractions on ancient calligraphy
Down a winding side street in the Aoyama district, western Tokyo. into a chunky white apartment building, then up in an elevator small enough to make a handful of Western passengers friends or enemies for life. At the end of a hall on the fourth floor, to the right, stands a plain brown door. To be admitted is to go through the looking glass. Sayonara today. Hello (Konichiwa) yesterday and tomorrow.
Toko Shinoda, 70, lives and works here. She can be, when she chooses, on e of Japans foremost calligraphers, master of an intricate manner of writing that traces its lines back some 3,000 years to ancient China. She is also an avant-garde artist of international renown, whose abstract paintings and lithographs rest in museums around the world. These diverse talents do not seem to belong in the same epoch. Yet they have somehow converged in this diminutive woman who appears in her tiny foyer, offering slippers and ritual bows of greeting. She looks like someone too proper to chip a teacup, never mind revolutionize an old and hallowed art form She wears a blue and white kimono of her own design. Its patterns, she explains, are from Edo, meaning the period of the Tokugawa shoguns, before her city was renamed Tokyo in 1868. Her black hair is pulled back from her face, which is virtually free of lines and wrinkles. except for the gold-rimmed spectacles perched low on her nose (this visionary is apparently nearsighted). Shinoda could have stepped directly from a 19th century Meji print.
Her surroundings convey a similar sense of old aesthetics, a retreat in the midst of a modern, frenetic city. The noise of the heavy traffic on a nearby elevated highway sounds at this height like distant surf. delicate bamboo shades filter the daylight. The color arrangement is restful: low ceilings of exposed wood, off-white walls, pastel rugs of blue, green and gray. It all feels so quintessentially Japanese that Shinoda’s opening remarks come as a surprise. She points out (through a translator) that she was not born in Japan at all but in Darien, Manchuria. Her father had been posted there to manage a tobacco company under the aegis of the occupying Japanese forces, which seized the region from Russia in 1905. She says,”People born in foreign places are very free in their thinking, not restricted” But since her family went back to Japan in 1915, when she was two, she could hardly remember much about a liberated childhood? She answers,”I think that if my mother had remained in Japan, she would have been an ordinary Japanese housewife. Going to Manchuria, she was able to assert her own personality, and that left its mark on me.”
Evidently so. She wears her obi low on the hips, masculine style. The Porcelain aloofness she displays in photographs shatters in person. Her speech is forceful, her expression animated and her laugh both throaty and infectious. The hand she brings to her mouth to cover her amusement (a traditional female gesture of modesty) does not stand a chance.
Her father also made a strong impression on the fifth of his seven children:”He came from a very old family, and he was quite strict in some ways and quite liberal in others.” He owned one of the first three bicycles ever imported to Japan and tinkered with it constantly He also decided that his little daughter would undergo rigorous training in a procrustean antiquity.
“I was forced to study from age six on to learn calligraphy,” Shinoda says, The young girl dutifully memorized and copied the accepted models. In one sense, her father had pushed her in a promising direction, one of the few professional fields in Japan open to females. Included among the ancient terms that had evolved around calligraphy was onnade, or woman's writing.
Heresy lay ahead. By the time she was 15, she had already been through nine years of intensive discipline, “I got tired of it and decided to try my own style. My father always scolded me for being naughty and departing from the traditional way, but I had to do it.”
She produces a brush and a piece of paper to demonstrate the nature of her rebellion. “This is kawa, the accepted calligraphic character for river,” she says, deftly sketching three short vertical strokes. “But I wanted to use more than three lines to show the force of the river.” Her brush flows across the white page, leaving a recognizable river behind, also flowing.” The simple kawa in the traditional language was not enough for me. I wanted to find a new symbol to express the word river.”
Her conviction grew that ink could convey the ineffable, the feeling, "as she says, of wind blowing softly.” Another demonstration. She goes to the sliding wooden door of an anteroom and disappears in back of it; the only trace of her is a triangular swatch of the right sleeve of her kimono, which she has arranged for that purpose. A realization dawns. The task of this artist is to paint that three sided pattern so that the invisible woman attached to it will be manifest to all viewers.
Gen, painted especially for TIME, shows Shinoda’s theory in practice. She calls the work “my conception of Japan in visual terms.” A dark swath at the left, punctuated by red, stands for history. In the center sits a Chinese character gen, which means in the present or actuality. A blank pattern at the right suggests an unknown future.
Once out of school, Shinoda struck off on a path significantly at odds with her culture. She recognized marriage for what it could mean to her career (“a restriction”) and decided against it. There was a living to be earned by doing traditional calligraphy:she used her free time to paint her variations. In 1940 a Tokyo gallery exhibited her work. (Fourteen years would pass before she got a second show.)War came, and bad times for nearly everyone, including the aspiring artist , who retreated to a rural area near Mount Fuji and traded her kimonos for eggs.
In 1954 Shinoda’s work was included in a group exhibit at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Two years later, she overcame bureaucratic obstacles to visit the U.S.. Unmarried Japanese women are allowed visas for only three months, patiently applying for two-month extensions, one at a time, Shinoda managed to travel the country for two years. She pulls out a scrapbook from this period. Leafing through it, she suddenly raises a hand and touches her cheek:”How young I looked!” An inspection is called for. The woman in the grainy, yellowing newspaper photograph could easily be the on e sitting in this room. Told this, she nods and smiles. No translation necessary.
Her sojourn in the U.S. proved to be crucial in the recognition and development of Shinoda’s art. Celebrities such as actor Charles Laughton and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet bought her paintings and spread the good word. She also saw the works of the abstract expressionists, then the rage of the New York City art world, and realized that these Western artists, coming out of an utterly different tradition, were struggling toward the same goal that had obsessed her. Once she was back home, her work slowly made her famous.
Although Shinoda has used many materials (fabric, stainless steel, ceramics, cement), brush and ink remain her principal means of expression. She had said, “As long as I am devoted to the creation of new forms, I can draw even with muddy water.” Fortunately, she does not have to. She points with evident pride to her ink stone, a velvety black slab of rock, with an indented basin, that is roughly a foot across and two feet long. It is more than 300 years old. Every working morning, Shinoda pours about a third of a pint of water into it, then selects an ink stick from her extensive collection, some dating back to China’s Ming dynasty. Pressing stick against stone, she begins rubbing. Slowly, the dried ink dissolves in the water and becomes ready for the brush. So two batches of sumi (India ink) are exactly alike; something old, something new. She uses color sparingly. Her clear preference is black and all its gradations. “In some paintings, sumi expresses blue better than blue.”
It is time to go downstairs to the living quarters. A niece, divorced and her daughter,10,stay here with Shinoda; the artist who felt forced to renounce family and domesticity at the outset of her career seems welcome to it now. Sake is offered, poured into small cedar boxes and happily accepted. Hold carefully. Drink from a corner. Ambrosial. And just right for the surroundings and the hostess. A conservative renegade; a liberal traditionalist; a woman steeped in the male-dominated conventions that she consistently opposed. Her trail blazing accomplishments are analogous to Picasso’s.
When she says goodbye, she bows. --by Paul Gray Time Magazine, August 1, 1983