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Born in March 28, 1913, Toko Shinoda lived with her wealthy family for two years in Dalian, Manchuria, at the age of two Shinoda and her family returned to Japan. Influenced strongly by her father’s love of sumi ink painting, calligraphy and Chinese poetry, Shinoda practiced calligraphy from the age of six.

Shinoda openly admits that she was an unruly student. By the age of 15 she was experimenting with the Chinese character for river, wanting to elaborate upon the simple image to depict the nuances of the flowing water. She was also fascinated, as well as irritated, by the red correction marks her teachers constantly made on her calligraphy homework. She later implemented red vermillion streaks in her abstract works as an homage of sorts to her exacting lessons.

Toko Shinoda early portrait

In 1940, Shinoda had her first solo exhibition of calligraphy works at the Ginza retail store, Kyukyodo, This is where Shinoda purchased her centuries-old sticks of Chinese sumi ink, as well as fine washi paper. Today the Imperial family owns pieces of Shinoda’s artwork, and she is friends with Empress Michiko – as Shinoda was good friends with the 84-year-old empress’ mother.

Toko Shinoda - Recollection, 91x150cm

Toko Shinoda - Recollection, 91x150cm

It wasn’t until 1945 that Shinoda began working on abstract paintings in sumi ink.

Following World War II, Shinoda spent two years in the United States from 1956 to 1958. Whilst there, she came into contact with the works of Jackson Pollock, the abstract paintings left a deep imprint on her. This impression saw Shinoda move beyond traditional calligraphy towards a more expressive, abstract style. During her time in the United States, she had a number of exhibitions, which helped to establish her name and work – her works were bought by a number of high-profile collectors. Whilst Shinoda was represented by the renowned art dealer, Betty Parsons, the same art dealer who represented Pollock, she never got to meet the reclusive and volatile Wyoming native as Pollock died in a drunk-driving accident two weeks before Shinoda arrived in New York.

In 1953, she exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, before moving to the city in 1956, and remembers the time vividly in an interview with the Japan Times:

“At first I was impressed by the freedom that American artists had. In Japan we used to copy the calligraphy of the masters, but at that time in New York artists were expected to produce something new and different. It was the start of abstract expressionism and artists were called on to bring forth new forms. I was able to paint my work, first based on calligraphy, to new forms and shapes and I think that it happened first in New York and then continued when I came back to Japan.”

Toko Shinoda Studio Photograph
Toko Shinoda - Signature, 69x109cm

Toko Shinoda - Signature, 69x109cm

She returned to Japan in 1958 and continued to produce her paintings and lithographs from her studio in a Tokyo suburb.

By 1983, TIME magazine compared Shinoda’s achievements to Picasso, and her legacy as a master of the brush and ink was set as art collectors from around the world snatched up her work. Shinoda celebrated her 100th birthday by unveiling a 194cm-long masterpiece that bears the striking red vermillion streak she is famous for.

In November 2018, The Tolman Collection showcased Shinoda’s work at Zozoji Temple, an exhibition we were delighted to attend. However, she refused awards, even forcing a newspaper to print a retraction after it was announced she was awarded ¥1 million, a gift which she declined. Even though she would never accept the title as living national treasure, at 107-years-old, Shinoda is just that.

She remained unmarried and considered herself as married to her work.

Toko Shinoda passed away in March 2021.

Toko Shinoda portrait - Tokyo Weekender

Kamal Bakhshi Modern Asian Art © 2023