Toko Shinoda, a retrospective

By Kaori Miyazaki, Curator, Gifu Collection of Modern Arts

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I first came across Shinoda’s work as a junior high school student. In a magazine my mother used to subscribe to, I saw Shinoda’s calligraphy piece of the Japanese character for beauty, 美. Even now, I clearly recall feeling deeply inspired by an indefinable beauty. I thought the character was powerful yet graceful. Does it symbolize Shinoda herself? Or, does it represent a universal beauty, something beyond the ink and composition?
 
Toko Shinoda learned the classics of Japanese literature and brush calligraphy from her father at a young age. She became independent in her early 20s when she started teaching brush calligraphy. Shinoda’s exceptional Hiragana (one element of the Japanese writing system) calligraphy helped her gradually establish a reputation as a female calligrapher. However, the more she pursued her desire to express, the more she felt confined by having to follow the specific Japanese character shapes.
 
“Let’s say I am about to write the character for river, 川. I know that it must contain three vertical lines. Neither two nor seven lines are acceptable. However, I can’t help but write it with five or thirteen lines. I want to write a countless number of lines. I want to write horizontal lines and diagonal lines, in addition to the original vertical lines. These desires arise organically and I don’t think they should be suppressed.” —Sumiiro (1978)
 
In the late 1940s, Shinoda shifted her focus from calligraphy to original, abstract ink works, which operate outside the realms of both calligraphy and painting.
 
However, her fascination with Japanese characters never stopped and she managed to engage both abstract and calligraphic works. Between the 1960s and 1970s in particular, she engaged in a broad range of calligraphy works: book titles, bookbinding, product labels, newspaper columns, TV program titles, and facility logos.
 
In 1969, Shinoda demonstrated her artistry on the packaging of two Kanebo fragrances, Hinotori and Morinosei. The thin and elegant lines of the Japanese character for fire, 火,  appeared to symbolize a graceful yet determined woman. While Morinosei featured multiple overwritten strokes of contrasting shades, which seemed to suggest a woman’s pure singing voice, echoing in an ancient forest.
 
The release of these products coincided with an economic boom, which led to new fashion trends, women’s liberation movements, and females entering the workforce. Like the character 火 (fire), Shinoda pursued and promoted her beliefs with passion. And she contributed to the trends and movements of the period by holding exhibitions in Europe and the US, as well as tirelessly working a new frontier of projects including architecture, lithographs, and essays. In the 1970s, a new sophisticated sense of beauty born through an inner dialogue started to appear in her work, as if to reflect her inner-spiritual world—the sacred silence her Morinosei piece delivers.
 
After the 1980s, the essence and world of Shinoda’s work began to silently expand as her brush strokes became cryptic, less-defined by convention and typical geometry, embracing contrast with dense, deep space. The characters detached from meaning and function, and now appeared as abstract shapes. Her work took on a new form that transcended calligraphy, although the original characters continued as a source of inspiration. Shinoda seems to have an endless well of passion and creativity, from which she draws to create powerful, graceful strokes like those found in the character of beauty.  

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