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  • Mar 08, 2021

Obituary: Toko Shinoda (1913–2021)

A portrait of TOKO SHINODA at work in her studio. Image via

The acclaimed Japanese calligrapher, painter, and printmaker Toko Shinoda, who was most well known for her sumi ink paintings, passed away in Tokyo on March 1 from natural causes, aged 107.

Born in Dalian, then part of Japanese-occupied Manchuria, in 1913, and raised in Tokyo from the age of two, Shinoda began to study traditional waka poetry, ink painting, and calligraphy at the age six. Taught by her father, whose own father was a sculptor, calligrapher, and an official seal carver to the Meiji emperor, Shinoda demonstrated a rebellious spirit once she reached her teenage years, departing from the disciplined visual modes of the medium that she felt restricted by. Instead, she sought out more evocative and expressive ways of rendering the ineffable. 

She held her first solo exhibition at Tokyo’s Ginza’s Kyukyodo Gallery in 1940, and was included in a group show of contemporary Japanese calligraphy at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1954, which increased her international recognition. During her time in New York in 1956–58, she became enamoured with the Abstract Expressionist movement and the works of its pioneers: Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell.

Working primarily in sumi ink, a soot-based ink that when rubbed against a wet stone creates a dark pigment, Shinoda began to blend tradition with the modernist aesthetic to create a distinct style, showcasing her delicate calligraphy with an abstract expressionist flair. Her lithograph Fugue (1984) exemplifies this, with gray and black panels rendered with calligraphic strokes ranging in size and opacity. Set against a blank background, subtle thin lines of green emerge from the bottom left to create tension against the contrasting monochromatic plane.

Notably, Shinoda also designed public murals in Tokyo, including for the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which was built for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and for the centuries-old Zojoji Temple in 1974, where her three-panel, 29-meter-long mural, Past, Present, Future (1974), her largest painting, was installed.

In her lifetime, the artist exhibited extensively both internationally and within Japan, including in solo exhibitions at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1957, Brussel’s Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1959, Gifu’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1992, the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1994, the Singapore Art Museum in 1996, Tokyo’s Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003, and New York’s The Tolman Collection in 2012, among others. Her portrait was depicted on a Japanese postage stamp in 2016, the only Japanese artist to have been honored in this way during their lifetime.

Yuna Lee is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific. 

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