One of many children of a poor blacksmith in the provincial city of Aomori, Munakata had only an elementary school education. Inspired, he said, by a reproduction of a Van Gogh painting given to him by a teacher, he determined to become an artist. His drive and charismatic personality made him the most famous of the post-war creative print artists, known for the simple folk-style of his prints and his memorable philosophies about the craft.
In 1935, Yanagi Sōsetsu purchased twenty of Munakata’s prints out of an exhibition for his Mingei (folk craft) Museum. Sōsetsu encouraged the young artist to study the traditional Buddhist art preserved in Kyoto. Disregarding the Indian origins of the Buddhist themes central to his art, Munakata promoted his art as purely Japanese—an expression of the common people. He carved just one block for his prints and used the most inexpensive black ink, distinguishing his work from artists’ hanga (prints) with terms like hangyo and hankei, which emphasize the woodiness of the block; a favorite term for his art was hanketsumyaku (blood vein of the board). Oliver Statler’s 1959 Modern Japanese Prints described Munakata as “a rebel among rebels.”
The title of this print refers to the Heian period (794–1185), when Buddhism and Shinto coexisted harmoniously in Japan. Buddha is seated on a lotus, flanked by a figure above and a figure below. These figures may be karyobinga—mystical Buddhist hybrids, half human and half bird, who play heavenly music; the lower figure in this print holds a musical instrument.
After the war, Munakata became a celebrity, cultivating an international reputation as a wild man who embodied a uniquely Japanese form of primitive vitality. His prints won prizes at major international exhibitions and, starting in 1959, he made several American tours, offering demonstrations of his energetic carving and printing techniques. In 1970, he was awarded a medal by Emperor Hirohito, the highest recognition given by the Japanese government to any print maker.