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The Doyenne of Japanese Contemporary Art: SHINODA Toko

a photograph of legendary painter and lithographer SHINODA Toko giggling with her friend, Japanese contemporary print dealer of The Tolman Collection of New York, Allison Tolman
Sharing a laugh with Toko-san

Edited March 1. 2021.

Toko Shinoda passed away today, just a few weeks shy of her 108th birthday. I feel grateful and honored to have known her for most of my life. I will miss her very much and am glad that her exceptional paintings and lithographs will be eternal memories of her artistic legacy.

New York Times obituary, here.

Washington Post obituary, here.

CNN obituary, here.

Harmony - 2003, framed painting, 32" x 72"

The text below dates from 04/03/2020.

SHINODA Toko Is 107 years old and only stopped releasing her paintings to the public a couple of years ago She lives on her own in the duplex apartment where she has lived for years, in the center of Tokyo's chic Minami Aoyama district. Her living quarters are on the lower floor and her studio right upstairs. She is still very active, especially considering her age, although just last spring she had a "moving chair" installed so that she doesn't have to navigate the stairs, and her niece has taken to visiting every day. Though a woman of contemporary ideas, Toko-san has always worn traditional kimono when we have met. Each time I have visited her, she is always wearing a different one and, when complimented, always remembers the exact provenance of the piece or the occasion for which she had it made. As often as not she will mention the age of the garment, or its design, and I was fascinated to learn that she has all her kimono treated with a special product (from Kyoto of course) that is the equivalent of ScotchGard for kimono. She chose our Tokyo living room during a party to demonstrate this quality by enthusiastically pouring a glass of red wine on her kimono sleeve, totally ignoring the fate of the oatmeal colored carpet!

Toko-san is at her most relaxed at her country home, with its unobstructed view of Mt Fuji and spends as many weekends and holidays there as possible. It is a rare honor to be invited for a visit. She says that the clear mountain air, the locally grown fruits and vegetables, and the quiet are all factors that contribute to her well-being and inspire her work. She once mentioned that she would love to draw a huge calligraphic stroke in the sky in front of Mount Fuji.

I make a point of visiting her each time I am in Tokyo and always enjoy our conversations. She is obviously a serious person with many intellectual topics to discuss but, as you can see in the photo above, Toko-san is also someone with whom to giggle and enjoy a good joke.

As a dealer and art aficionado, I admire her work and her career and she has been an inspiration since I was a teenager on a personal level as well. To have carved out the full and autonomous life for herself that she has, based on what she wanted to achieve artistically (both as an artist and a published poet) is truly admirable, I think - especially in view of her gender, her culture and the era in which she first aspired to excellence and independence, that her uncompromising standards for art and her personal life are clearly illustrated through every brushstroke of each painting, or line in any print.

A visit to Toko-san's studio

SHINODA Toko has worked in both lithography and in painting; she is well known for both. Her exquisite work features in museum collections around the world. Her master printer, KIMURA Kihachi (9314-2014), retired in 2007 and she has not released any lithographs since. Her lithographs were masterful in terms of technique and composition and differ from many in that she very often added colorful calligraphic strokes by hand afterwards. This means that each of the prints in one of her very small editions was slightly different than the others as opposed to most lithographs where all the prints in an edition are exactly the same if printed properly. A wonderful illustration of her talent at lithography is the triptych below.

a tryptich of abstract lithographs by renowned contemporary artist SHINODA Toko in many shades of muted gray.t
New Dimension (1983, ed.25, each sheet 28" x 21")

Nowadays, whether in Tokyo or staying at her house near Fuji-san, Toko-san paints and writes every single day without fail. Some days, it may be just a few perfectly placed calligraphic strokes. Other times, selecting one of the myriad of brushes in her collection and working on handmade paper, or gold or platinum leaf mounted on board, she will grind some sumi ink by hand or some cinnabar from her Ming dynasty vermilion tablet and create an enormous work of art, its strength and presence belying her age and slight stature. Toko-san has often told me that the area she leaves blank in her paintings is just as important as the brushstrokes that she brings to life in black, Ming red, silver, gold or any of a mind boggling variety of grays. I think that it is because of the intentional breathing room she gives her compositions - the juxtaposition of empty space and deliberate, controlled brush stroke - that her paintings, such as the one below are so vibrant and alive.

I recently visited her studio and looked at a number of paintings, both old and new. I could find patterns in her work over a decade, or see how ideas had progressed over time as she developed them, but could not point out which pieces were made when she was 80 or 90 or 100. Her technique and the strength of her work have never varied. I find this yet another remarkable fact about a truly extraordinary artist. Those of you who are interested in learning more about her can watch a short film interview here, or take a look at some of the paintings that I have available for sale on her artist's page. Since Shinoda-san has not released any lithographs since 2007, I am now concentrating on her wonderful paintings. I do however have a small stock of Tolman Collection exclusive edition lithographs still available, so please contact me directly should you wish to see them.


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