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The art of seeing: two paintings of wisteria were made less than twenty years apart, one in America, the other in Japan.
Lush and abundant, if you could pull the clustered blooms closer, it would require both hands. The scent, having been locked in the frame, would overwhelm.
George Cochran Lambdin, American; Wisteria on a Stucco Wall, 1873; Oil on canvas; PMA 2004-178-1
Here, like the untethered branches, the scent cantors on the breeze, surrounds you for a moment, and then seeks another.
Right: Kashō Joshi, Japanese; Wisteria; Meiji Period (1868-1912), c. 1890; Ink on silk; mounted as a hanging scroll; PMA 1924-40-16
The natural beauty of the islands of Japan varies greatly from the subarctic climate in the north to the subtropical zone in the south. Celebration of the four distinct seasons and their transition from one to another permeates Japanese culture.
Art is drawn from the cultural context from which it is created and by how those ideas are communicated. For long periods, as Japan remained either isolated from or interacted with the outside world, the artistic expression of the wonder of nature assimilated, adapted, and reacted to several key vehicles of influence, especially Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
To be fully alive is to have an aesthetic perception of life because a major part of the world’s goodness lies in its often unspeakable beauty. – The Way of the Kami: Life and Thought of a Shinto Priest
Shinto, the oldest indigenous belief system in Japan, finds divinity, or kami, manifested in nature. Kami (“what is hidden”), whether good or evil, is the essence of existence that is in everything and is found everywhere; it’s what makes something itself rather than something else. Flowing waterfalls, mountain peaks, and rock formations, for example, were thought to be consecrated by the kami that inhabited them. In art, nature is portrayed as an intimate source of spiritual insight.
Ike Taiga; Flowering Plum Trees in Mist; Edo Period (1615-1868); c. 1750; Ink and color on paper; mounted as a pair of six-fold screens; PMA E1969-1-1 and E1969-1-2
Above, the blossoming boughs of the gnarled tree form an arched bower. Below, abstract patches of ink create an immense, rugged plum tree that rises from a massive rock formation. On aged, sculptural branches that extend beyond the frame of the screen, precise and detailed inked lines create a profusion of new blooms.
In Asian art, the plum tree is symbol of winter and a harbinger of spring. When viewed side by side, as the artist intended, the contrast between the unpainted void and the solid forms among the branches imply the inseparable and contradictory opposites of yin and yang, darkness and light, death and life, found in the natural world.
The twenty-four-foot (7.3 meters) breadth of both screens is highlighted with a pale gold wash. Imagine how the depth of the scene would literally and philosophically change when seen from morning light to evening candlelight.
The influence of Shinto is also evident in Noh (Nō) theater, a poetic dance-drama performed in ancient language with highly ritualized movements. The stage is a wooden structure with a Shinto shrine-style curved roof covered in cypress bark tiles; a stylized pine tree painted on the back wall celebrates the bond between humans and kami. Plots rely heavily on the Buddhist belief that humans should not become attached to the world, for it is a world of illusion.
This short-sleeved kimono with smaller cuffs (kitsuke) was used for female roles (traditionally played by men in masks and costumes) and was worn as either an outer or inner robe depending on the character. Meticulous workmanship is evident in the smallest details. The satin fabric is decorated with both shishu (fragile and delicate embroidered patterns made to look like an oil painting from a distance) and surihaku (impressed gold or silver foil) elements.
Embroidered bell flowers, chrysanthemums, peonies, and bush clover (shishu) spring from asymmetric flower boxes filled with solid gold leaf (surihaku).
In the background, bent golden grasses weighed down by dew drops serve as a reminder of the ephemeral.
See them, floundering in their sense of mine, like fish in the puddles of a dried-up stream. Seeing this, live with no mine, not forming attachment to experiences. – The Buddha
Once Buddhism was introduced to Japan by monks from Korea in the mid-500s CE, Buddhist concepts, such as the understanding of reality as constant change, appeared in art. Images of the transient qualities of nature – moonlight, changing weather, ocean waves – remind the viewer to embrace the inescapability of impermanence.
Temporarily shaped by the wind, the moon and tides, and topography of the ocean floor, waves form, crest, and dissolve. It doesn’t matter which one is the biggest, fastest, lasts the longest, or roars to the shore. Unable to separate from the ocean, waves are impermanent and always arise and return as water.
In Japanese Zen Buddhism, metaphorically, to be un-enlightened is to see oneself as a separate existence, a wave.
To be enlightened is to see oneself as the water in a process of continual transformation, aware and vitally alive in each moment.
Buddhism also influenced the art of scroll-making, where, over one-thousand years ago in China, scrolls were placed in Buddhist temples. When the kakejiku (hanging scroll) was introduced into Japan around the 1200s, the art form developed alongside the spread of Buddhism.
We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one. – Confucius
The Chinese teaching, Confucianism, was also introduced into Japan from Korea around the same time as Buddhism. The development of shodō, the art of Japanese calligraphy, became closely connected with Buddhism, scroll-making, and Confucian thought, where the purpose of existence is to reach one’s highest potential through a lifetime, rigorous process of self-cultivation.
Calligraphy, the art of writing, shares the same tools – brush and ink – and formal elements – line, color, form, texture, shape, and space – with painting.
By varying the flexible possibilities of the brushes, the consistency and amount of ink it carries, the amount of pressure and speed exerted by the brush upon the surface, and the flow and rhythm upon which the brush runs dry, the calligrapher’s tools become an extension of their mind and body. Written characters that express phonemic sounds or meanings transform into manifestations of energy, impulsiveness, restraint, elegance, and movement.
Ike Taiga (1723-1776), who began as a child prodigy, was versed in Chinese painting and poetry of all periods, familiar with the reigning schools of official Japanese art, instructed in Neo-Confucian thought, and interested in Daoism and Buddhism. He shifted styles and scale in a body of work that consists of screens, fans and hand scrolls, calligraphy in several forms and sizes, sumi-e (black ink painting), and his distinctive style of Chinese-style landscape painting. Having also published painting manuals that were used for generations, he expanded ink into a magnificently expressive medium that ranged from panoramic landscapes to graceful small, intimate haiga (simple pictures combined with poetry, usually haiku) that convey a strong sense of the artist’s gesture and personality.
“Flying White” (fei bai) is a brushstroke that requires extraordinary skill. By knowing when to lift up and when to press down on the brush, the hairs carrying the ink split, which leaves space on the paper or silk untouched while the exterior edges of the brush model the image.
Here, Taiga wrote out two lines of five-characters each in a mix of two different calligraphy scripts. The brush was heavily inked to write the rounded yet solid characters which are perfectly balanced with “flying white”.
The couplet comes from a long poem by the Chinese poet Song Zhiwen (656?-712):
From blue-green peaks hang last night’s rains;
Red gullies drink the cloudless rainbow.
Ike Taiga; Calligraphy of a Poem by Song Zhiwen; Edo Period (1615-1868), c. 1750; Ink on paper; mounted as a hanging scroll; PMA 2000-115-1
Ike Taiga; Calligraphy of a Poem by Ono no Komachi; Edo Period (1615-1868), c. 1770; Ink on paper; mounted as a hanging scroll; PMA 1991-49-1
The four Chinese characters at the beginning are the name of poetess Ono no Komachi (825 – 900).
The rest is in the hiragana syllabic text (Japanese syllabary), which is read from right to left, top to bottom. The calligraphy coalesces with the poem, one of her best-known verses:
Was it that I fell asleep
Longing for him
That he appeared?
Had I known it was a dream
I should not have awakened.
In the mid-1800s, after Japan began trading with the West, its virtually unknown art and goods were exhibited at the World’s Fair in London in 1862 and in Paris in 1867. How did artists in the West react?
Several decades later, in order to distinguish Japanese art from Western art, a philosophical discipline analogous to Western aesthetics developed. A blend of the Japanese view of nature, Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism, what are the major aesthetic aspects of Japanese art?
To read Part Two, click here: Looking Within Shadows and Spaces – The Nature of Japanese Art, Part Two
– Meighan Maley
All works in this post are in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), Philadelphia, USA.
Buddhism in Japan http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat16/sub182/item589.html
Chinese Brush Painting https://www.asia-art.net/chinese_brush.html
Chinese Calligraphy https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm
Felice Fischer and Kyoko Kinoshita; Ike Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran: Japanese Masters of the Brush Exh. cat. Philadelphia and New Haven: Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2007
Japanese Art (c.14,500 BCE – 1900); Guide to the Arts & Crafts of Japan http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/east-asian-art/japanese-art.htm
Japanese Confucian Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-confucian/
Parkes, Graham and Loughnane, Adam, “Japanese Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/japanese-aesthetics/
Philadelphia Museum of Art Website https://www.philamuseum.org
Philadelphia Museum of Art Handbook
Shinto https://www.learnreligions.com/shinto-worship-traditions-practices-4570821, https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/shinto/beliefs/kami_1.shtml, and https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shin/hd_shin.htm