japonisme: 7/13/08 - 7/20/08

19 July 2008

taking back the tiger


Once, in a kingdom long ago where ancient customs prevailed, a gardener's son dared to love the King's only daughter, the Princess Royal. That was bad enough. But as luck would have it, the princess loved the boy in return. And that was worse. Of course, the two never had a chance to actually speak to each other, but they exchanged many glances, and occasionally blew each other a surreptitious kiss when they hoped nobody was looking. They both knew that loving each other was not right. But they loved each other all the same.

Oh, how they longed to speak to each other, to whisper loving things to each other, or even -- but this hardly bore thinking of -- kiss each other. Still, for many months they were happy with their secret love, gazing from afar at each other. But at about the same time, the princess and the boy realized that this was not enough. When he helped out in the garden, the boy spent more and more time under the windows of the princess's royal chambers. And the princess spent more and more of her time looking out her windows, hoping for a moment when the two could finally speak.

One lovely spring day, the longed-for moment finally arrived. The princess was in her sitting room, staring out the window, and her chambermaids had retired at her command. The gardener's son was weeding near the palace walls, and the other gardeners were out of sight around the corner. And the boy drew near the princess's window just as she looked down. The princess leaned out the window, the boy stood up, and the two were just inches away, and finally the boy said the first thing he had ever said directly to the princess. 'I love you," he said simply. 'I love you," the princess replied. But that was their undoing. For as she spoke, the door to her chambers opened and who should enter but the King himself! Hearing her words, he strode to the window and caught the hapless gardener's son still standing outside the window, smiling upwards.

Justice in this kingdom was swift and, in the eyes of this most just of kings, was always fair. There was but one method of dealing with all serious offenses, and it was used on all, rich or poor, minister or gardener's son. The king had had a large arena built right on the palace grounds. Prisoners were led into the center of the arena, where they were faced with two large doors. The prisoner was then to choose one of the doors, and open it. Behind one door was always a lovely lady, and behind the other was always a fearsome tiger. The doors were well padded, so there was no way to hear the roars or rumblings of the ferocious beast behind one door. And nobody but the king himself ever knew behind which door was concealed the lady and behind which the tiger.

If the prisoner opened the door with the lady, he was married on the spot and immediately rose to prominence in the kingdom. If he opened the door with the tiger, he would be eaten by the fierce beast. Thus, felt the king, the fates alone would determine the guilt or innocence of the prisoner.

Daring to love the king's daughter was, of course, a serious crime. And being loved in return only compounded the offense. The gardener's son was arrested on the spot, and led to prison to await his turn in the arena. But as he was led away, he saw the princess form a few words with her lips: 'trust me,' she breathed. So he retained a glimmer of hope.

As he waited, however, his hopes faded. At the same time, the king grew more and more pleased with himself and his system of justice. Both had the same thoughts: whatever the outcome, the boy would be forever separated from the princess. For if he chose the lady, he would of course be married on the spot, and thus forfeit forever his chances of marrying anybody else. And if he chose the tiger, he would not live another ten minutes.

While the boy was languishing in the prison and the king was feeling pleased with himself, the princess was very busy. By the eve of the day the prisoner was to be led out to the area, she had managed by stealth and trickery to discover what normally only the king knew: which door would contain the tiger and which the lady. All that next night, she tossed and turned. What should she tell her love? She didn't know how to decide. If he chose the lady, how could she bear to watch him there, married on the spot, happy beyond words at his escape from death? And then, to see him forever around the palace, risen to prominence but forever further out of reach than she could bear? Would it not be better to end things quickly, and then meet him once again in that other world to which all are finally taken?

But oh! How could she possibly condemn him to the horrible death of the tiger's teeth and claws? The screams? The blood?

The princess did not sleep all night. But by morning, she knew what she would do. She rose and dressed, and presently was sitting at her father's side in the arena, waiting for the prisoner to be led out. Then the boy came striding boldly out, and as was the custom he walked directly over towards the king, and bowed. As he stood up, he stole one brief glance at the princess. One glance was enough. She sat calmly and with dignity, but, almost imperceptibly, she made a quick motion with her right hand.

Without waiting or thinking, the gardener's son walked instantly to the right-hand door and opened it.

And now, dear reader, I ask you the same question that the princess asked herself for all those long agonizing hours of the final night. What was her decision? Which came out? The lady, or the tiger?

Frank R. Stockton 1

(In Japanese art, tigers first appeared in Zen Buddhist imagery as symbols of the forces of nature and the human spirit that were to be mastered by spiritual insight. Frequently painted on the walls of Buddhist monasteries, tigers probably served as symbols of the mys- teries of life that must be contemplated in order to attain spiritual wisdom. 2

to my eyes, it's the japanese and women who see the liquidity of the tiger. norbertine von bresslern-roth clearly did. as symbol and stand- ard, why must it be woman or tiger? why must woman as tiger connote only rabid sexuality. taking the tiger to be a part of our self image seems a natural, strength and grace being our most natural state.)

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16 July 2008

my favorites

such an interesting bunch of studies the last couple of days, all instigated by something neil asked in the comments section of 'women and nature.' he wanted to know about the connections that may have brought elizabeth keith to the attention of watanabe shozaburo.

as it turns out, nobody had to have much in the way of connections to meet watanabe -- he was on the prowl. he pursued artists, western and japanese, by attending exhibitions, and by making himself known.

i just updated the labels on my library thing today; sometimes it surprises me how long i have been at this, and to what degree i haven't even known what i was looking at. so let's look again at watanabe, though it's true, we have met him before (and here too). because what this is all about is 'shin hanga,' and what shin hanga was all about was watanabe.

but first let's remind ourselves of the state of printmaking in japan at that time: the 'invasion' was nearly 50 years earlier; ukiyo-e had fallen out of fashion as painters from japan travelled to paris to study with matisse and monet. those left in japan with their printmaking skills had taken to producing pull-out illustrations for paperback novels. ukiyo-e was edo, and edo was over.

"Out of this general decline, a new art movement was born -- the shin hanga ("new prints") movement .... The concept of shin hanga was traditional and Japanese. The dogma was to keep the old way of creating a woodblock print in a highly specialized team of artist, carver, printer and publisher. In this team the artist made the design and at best supervised the work of the carvers and printers. The publisher was responsible for sales and the commercial success.

"In such a team the publisher was usually the decision maker. He had to pay the artist, the carvers and printers, and thus was geared for commercial success. The carvers and printers were on the lower side of appreciation and received less money for their work than the artist. However, in our view they were the ones with the highest degree of artisan skill.

"These shin hanga teams added some modern Western features to traditional Japanese subjects. The essential feature was the use of light and shadow. The Japanese had learned this from the French impressionists. Another Western feature was perspective. The third and probably decisive factor for shin hanga was their sales concept. It was catered from the beginning for export of the prints to North America and Europe. In plain words, the prints were designed and created in a way that should please foreigners. Shin hanga images show beautiful landscapes with an intact nature, geishas in kimonos on their way home under a full moon, fishing boats sailing under a red sky, and above all that majestic Mount Fuji in the background. Critics of shin hanga come up with the reproach that the world shown on shin hanga images was one that had ceased to exist a long time ago.

"Shin hanga was not an art movement founded by a group of artists. When we speak of shin hanga we must mention one man -- Shozaburo Watanabe, 1885-1962. He was everything for shin hanga: the founder, the driving force and mentor of the movement. At a very young age Mr. Shozaburo Watanabe had established his own print shop. In the beginning his core business was the production of reproductions that he exported to the U.S.A and Europe.

"Mr. Shozaburo Watanabe had a keen and rigid business sense, and a feeling what could sell in Western markets. He began to give commissions to a group of artists for designs of modern woodblock prints. In the beginning he cooperated with Western artists living in Japan like the Austrian Fritz Capelari. He thought that only a Western artist was able to make a design attractive to foreigners. But soon Japanese artists became the supporting pillar for Mr. Watanabe's export business." 1

"In 1915, Watanabe was looking for new artists to revitalize the art of woodblock prints. No longer satisfied with his work with Takahashi Shotei [his first artist], he wanted to work with an artist who could paint Japanese scenes in a realistic Western style. That spring, he noticed Capelari's watercolors in a Japanese department store exhibition. Watanabe was impressed and contacted Capelari, hoping to arrange a collaboration." 2

he would follow through this process, visiting exhibitions, then soliciting the western artists to work with him, with numerous others. not all works published in this way was of scenes in japan; elizabeth keith and cyrus baldridge, for example, were more likely to paint scenes from china than of japan. in addition to capelari, there were also bertha lum and charles bartlett. additional japanese artists to work with watanabe were yoshida hiroshige, kawase hasui, ohara koson, goyo, and many others. the artists brought him paintings, and he made magic of them.

and folks for all my books, it's not until now did i realize how these artists, the ones who have been my favorites for decades, were designed to be just that: MY FAVORITES! me: a westerner. all of my favorite japanese artists were doing work designed to be western! (hiroshige left watanabe after only a few prints, and he continued to work to perfect what he saw as his fine art.)

do i care do i feel 'duped'? well, maybe for a second or two. then i life my eyes, to shotei, or kawase, or keith, and i am enwrapped in awe once again.

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13 July 2008

under the yum yum tree

the thing is, is that other than matthew perry and his black ships, there is no linear path to what happened in the arts after japan was deisolationized.

today's post started because i finally got around to asking jean at her incredible flickr destination who the artist was for this lovely little print. she didn't know, but i realized it was credited to treadway, and was able to track it down.

it's by lilian miller, the only one of the western printmakers who was actually born in japan (her father worked at the american consulate).

i like it, and don't feel that way about the work of all of the western printmakers who went to study the practice in japan. and i'm not exactly sure why, which is why i wanted to do this post, to feel my way there.

why do they, for example, not look japanese? why do they repeat the same themes and subjects so often, and in such similar ways? the one hokusai drawing is perhaps the only image i could come across that is quite like that, yet with the work of the westerners, the work is indistinguishable from one artist to the next.

sadly, some of the answer is stuff we've heard before. even among those who had gone out of their way to move to japan to study, there was a sense of superiority over the 'charming quaintness of the environment,' as hyde put it. 'the japanese people are so lacking in physical beauty themselves that they must compensate for their deficiencies.' 1

with this sense of distance from their surroundings, art became more about form than content, copying rather than creating, illustrating instead of making art. lum and hyde were financially successful with their work, and that was the intent they pursued, creating commercially viable products, and even promoting them as such.

this attitude was not shared by all of the new students of this ancient art, as we will see in forthcoming posts.

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