japonisme: 3/1/09 - 3/8/09

07 March 2009

japonisme & buddhism • part 3

while we are still tracing fenollosa's footsteps, we must first put an 1870 book into his hands: across america and asia, by raphael pumpelly. he is turned to the one chapter written by john la farge, 'an essay on japanese art,' from which i shall quote liberally.

[Japanese prints] have always been admired, and collected, but like other rare things have had their best merits passed over, because they could be made the objects of a vulgar curiosity. Though they furnish a test, if ever there was one, for discernment in art, those who make it their business to instruct in such matters were silent. Original appreciation of excellence is never abundant; even so late as 1851, Mr. Owen Jones did not include Japanese decoration in his "Grammar of Ornament."

These things all please the eye, as if with the sense of touch. On analysis, besides the wondrous finish, we notice the novelty of the design, its energy, its accuracy, its sentiment, very often the grandeur of its style, very often a stamp of individuality or personal talent, its recalling of natural objects, the enchanting harmony of its colors, and its exquisite adaptation to the surface ornamented.

We feel that we are looking at perfect work, that we are in presence of a distinct civilization, where art is happily married to industry. These accompaniments of every-day life, studied out, reveal a complete school of art. While it is still pure, uninfluenced, and uninjured by new contacts, it will be well to inquire into its value, and to learn what lessons we can derive from it. Its limits seem at this day distinctly traced. What we shall know hereafter cannot contradict the points already made, even if it should very much displace them. Notwithstanding that every nation bears intellectual fruit neither natural nor tasteful to others, this is truer of literature than of plastic art, for this last speaks the more universal language; and without our aiming at a full analysis, the principal characteristics of this decorative art may be here described in some connected order.

Most evident in Japanese art, is the use of a marvellous decoration, the very crown of that power over color always an heirloom of the East, and a separate gift from ours. . To Eastern directness, fullness, and splendor, the Japanese add a sobriety, a simplicity, a love of subdued harmonies and imperceptible gradations, and what may be called an intellectual refinement akin to something in the Western mind. If we wish, their works can be for us a store-house as ample and as valuable in its way as the treasures of form left to us by the Greeks. For the Japanese, no combinations of colors have been improbable, and their solutions of such as are put aside by Western knowledge recall the very arrangements of Nature.

(I remember a print in which a silvered sickle of a moon shone through the most delicate gray fog clouds, as correctly edged as if by the photograph, and melting into the very texture of the paper. Over this were faint lines of falling rain, and an inscription perfectly distinct, but as pale as the faintest wash of India ink. If we admire this refinement, what are we to think of that which it addressee in Japan?)

Great beauty of color is apt to obscure the structure upon which it rests, and excellence of design is not seldom unrecognized in the works of great colorists. Little as this is felt in the harmonious synthesis of Japanese decoration, Japanese drawings and wood-cuts in black and white allow us to gauge their abstract power of design, and their knowledge of drawing. Stripped of those other beauties of color and texture so peculiar to their precious work, these drawings give us in the simplest way their control of composition, that power in art which affects the imagination by the mere adjustment of lines and masses. Herein their work can be compared to the best, in this — the most simple means of expression in art, for by this all its forms and periods are united, and the tattooing of the savage is connected with the designs of Michael Angelo.

In fact it is the nearest expression of the will of the artist, which is the very foundation of art. Japanese composition in ornamental design has developed a principle which separates it technically from all other schools of decoration. This will have been noticed by all who have seen Japanese ornamental work, and might be called a principle of irregularity, or apparent chance arrangement: a balancing of equal gravities, not of equal surfaces. A Western designer, in ornamenting a given surface, would look for some fixed points from which to start, and would mark the places where his mind had rested by exact and symmetrical divisions. These would be supposed by a Japanese, and his design would float over them, while they, though invisible, would be felt beneath. Thus a few ornaments — a bird, a flower — on one side of this page would be made by an almost intellectual influence to balance the large unadorned space remaining.

And so, by a principle familiar to painters, an appeal is made to the higher ideas of design, to the desire of concealing Art beneath a look of Nature. It has the advantage of allowing any division and extension, and super-imposition of other and contradictory designs. With another analogy to the higher forms of Art, the Japanese look to more symmetrical arrangement for their graver effects and religious symbolisms. To carry out this subtle conciliation of symmetry and chance, this constant reference to the order of nature requires of course an incessant watching of all its moods and all its details.

The daily record of such attention fills the sketch-books of all artists, and many of the little Japanese books of prints are nothing but facsimiles of such sketches. Whether they are careless or studied, an impression of Nature disengages itself from them all; every one who sees them will be more or less sensitive to a spirit of observation unfamiliar to our more hurried civilization. With the exception of a certain idealized stereotyping of the female face, they have a respect for reality only limited by understanding the necessities of art. Any excess is in the direction of essential laws, and accentuation is a note of Japanese art. If their modes shock our own conventionalities, we cannot gainsay that never before have artists so lived at home with animals and plants; never has artistic skill held under a more subtle sway the thoughtless tribes of sea and air.

To different origins we shall reasonably look for the causes which have kept the Japanese artist to flat tints and boundary lines in drawing, and have prevented his pursuing others of nature's appearances, and attempting to give the forms of things by the opposition of light and shade, or the influence of colored light. With the harmony which belongs to all good art, Japanese works, if they do not solve the latter problem, offer at least very successful sketches of such solutions. Their colored prints are most charmingly sensitive to the coloring that makes up the appearance of different times of day, to the relations of color which mark the different seasons, so that their landscape efforts give us, in reality, the place where — the illuminated air of the scene of action; and what is that but what we call tone?

Like all true colorists, they are curious of local color, and of the values of light and shade ; refining upon this they use the local colors to enhance the sensation of the time, and the very colors of the costumes belong to the hour or the season of the landscape. Eyes studious of the combinations and oppositions of color, which must form the basis of all such representations, will enjoy these exquisite studies, of whose directness and delicacy nothing too much can be said in praise.

Inquiry into Japanese art would give material for appreciation of the social state of the artist-workman in mediaeval times and in a military race, or again in Pagan antiquity, and for a study of the advantages and disadvantages connected with a fixed social condition : to which comparison the analogies and differences with their Chinese brethren will add help. But it must now be sufficient to have helped, in any way, to call attention to this art, which helps to bridge the gulf between us and the Eastern gardens. It can be the source of useful influences from a living school, equal to any in the study of nature and the use of decoration; and it offers, to all those willing to put themselves in the proper mood, a new and fresh fountain of imaginative enjoyment. *

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04 March 2009

japonisme & buddhism • part 2

John La Farge was a self-taught man, and had no technique at his command, but he had one quality which American art until then had rarely known, namely, colour. This rare gift became first noticeable in his flower pieces, which occupied him during the years 1860-65. His water-lilies are a revela- tion of colour. The water seems to take a green reflection from the flower-sepals, broken lights from the white blow vibrate all through it, and the sensitive gold of the stamens at the heart of the lily shines through the white petals quivering in the sun. 1

Married to the grandniece of Commodore Matthew Perry, who opened Japan to the West in 1853-­54, La Farge began collecting Japanese decorative and religious arts in 1856. Almost contemporaneously, he began painting flower still lifes, progressing to watercolors of water lilies, a common Japanese landscape theme, which evokes the sacred Buddhist emblem of the lotus. 2

In 1886 La Farge traveled to Japan with his friend Henry Adams, where he studied Japanese landscape painting, Buddhism, and Taoism. While there he was taught by Ernest Fenollosa, William Sturgis Bigelow, and Okakura Kakuzo, all of whom had been initiated into Tendai Buddhism. La Farge was strongly attracted to Taoism, identifying with the Taoist and Buddhist absorption into nature.

He saw this as a way, "to live again in the oneness of mind and feeling which is to open to us the doors of the kingdom." If he found in Taoism the theoretical foundation to explain his artistic participation in nature, in Buddhism he discovered direct imagistic inspiration. "The radiance of the landscape illuminates my room; the landscape does not come within. I have become as a blank to be filled." 3

"It was a delight in me, in this mood of veneration for past greatness, to recognize in the veilings and sequences of this paint- ing of the lotus methods I had used my- self, working at such distance of time and place, when I had tried to render the tones and the transparency of our fairy water-lily." (from a letter written by La Farge)

"La Farge is like a spectacled and animated prism. He has taught me to feel the subtleness and endless variety of charm in the color and light of every hour in the day and night. I get gently intoxicated on the soft violets and strong blues, the masses of purple and the broad bands of orange and green in the sunsets, as I used to griser myself on absinthe on the summer evenings in the Palais Royal before dining at Vefour's, thirty years ago. The outlines of the great mountains, their reddish purple glow, the infinite variety of greens and the perfectly intemperate shifting blues of the ocean, are a new world to me." (from a letter written by Adams)

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03 March 2009

japonisme & buddhism • part I

and i begin again, but this series will wrap itself inextricably with the previous, a story of wright, and dow, and fenollosa, and, well, we'll see where it leads us. i see there has been far too little about fenollosa up to now, other than this, which is important, so i'll be remedying that. let's start building the connections....

"In 1871, as the infant Wright was already constructing with colored blocks, Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern, starting the Great Chicago Fire that destroyed the city. When young draughtsman Wright arrived in 1887, Chicago was the booming de facto capitol of America's west. Chicago needed to rebuild and had the money to do it. The city was a 'perfect storm' of architectural thought and development.

"On his fourth day looking for work, surviving (he claimed) on ten cents worth of bananas, Wright found work in the office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, one of Chicago's most respected architects. In a contemporary photo of Silsbee's living room a 'kakemono' painting hangs by the hearth. This may have been Wright's first exposure to Japanese art.

Even more fateful, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, America's foremost expert on Japanese art, decorated by the Emperor Meiji himself, was Silsbee's cousin. Fenollosa stayed with Silsbee on trips home. At some point Wright met Fenollosa, later recalling:

"'When I first saw a fine print it was an intoxicating thing. At that time Ernest Fenollosa was doing his best to persuade the Japanese people not to wantonly destroy their works of art.... On one of his journeys home he brought many beautiful prints, those I made mine were the narrow tall decorative form hashirakake -- these I appreciate today more than I did then.'

"Those 'hashirakake' turned Wright's thoughts eastward forever. 'The first prints had a large share I am sure in vulgarizing the Renaissance for me.'

"Wright soaked up Fenellosa's lectures on Japanese art and architecture: harmony with nature, simplification, honest use of materials, and minimal decoration. Wright wrote on Japanese houses, '... all ornament, as we call it, they get out of the way the necessary things are done or by bringing out or polishing the beauty of the simple materials used in making the building." 1

(in the following paragraph there is a link to a video of a garden; you think it will be too long, and then you'll beg it not to end.)

"When Wright went to Japan, he visited Shikoku, Nagoya and Kyoto. Wright declared the Shugakuin, a seventeenth-century imperial stroll garden in north Kyoto, as the world's greatest work of art. "All that was like an open book to me," he recalled of the garden's design, "and I knew how to read it. I could read every word in it.... It was a great educational experience." 1

1. Burbank, Jon. "Frank Lloyd Wright's Japanese legacy." World and I April 2006

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02 March 2009

welcome to brittany

well, i should have turned left, going south towards france's west coast, instead of right, which sent me towards the north. brittany, home to gauguin and the nabis, rather than giverny, home of monet and the impressionists.

additional american (and other) artist colonies sprang up on the breton coasts, just as they had in giverny, and though there are conflicting reports as to whether dow and gauguin (who moved further away when so many americans arrived) worked together or never met, dow spent several summers in pont-aven.

while it was easy to see the jap- anese influence on the impres- sionists developing further north, from dressing their models in kimonos with parasols to the frequent diagonal structure, it was the artists in brittany that felt the japanese inspiration on another level.

painters from around the world spent time in the pont-aven region. when dow was there, he hung out with benjamin harrison, arthur hoeber, and charles 'shorty' lazar. the paintings of the breton group of painters "showed an overall simplification, a highly expressive use of colour, and an intensely spiritual subject matter."

the americans, and the other painters in the region, including the nabis, found inspiration for these leanings in the japanese prints then flooding france. dow himself took further inspiration from the nabis, whose style and philosophy involved the stripping away of irrelevent details, the flattening of space, and an indulgence in color.

the spiritual underpinning of all this involved the seeing of the direct thing, its essential nature, the idea of it. and of course once we get into ideas, of anything, we must include the artist himself, for we are now discussing personal perception.

i could begin to list all of the americans who returned to the US from brittany, having imbibed much of the same set of values just as i could list all of the europeans they encountered there, but i'd rather deal with them in an ongoing way when i get past this lengthy chapter.

instead, i want to look at the differences at the hearts of these two communities, the differences between gauguin and monet. in both cases we are talking about light, and about the approach to abstraction, modernism: monet shattered the light while gauguin worked toward sweeping away everything but light and color.

monet's philosophy was this: I want the unobtainable. Other artists paint a bridge, a house, a boat, and that's the end. They are finished. I want to paint the air which surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat, the beauty of the air in which these objects are located, and that is nothing short of impossible.

gauguin, instead, looked for something more internal; to him, going to brittany represented a return to nature in its purer form, closer to the earth itself, than existed in the rest of france. he wanted truth.

robert hughs, of time magazine, has written of gauguin, If there is an absolute originality in Gau- guin, it lies in his color, for which no amount of reproduction prepares you. It is saturated, infinitely subtle, full of the stateliest assonances and most risky contrasts; its range of emotional suggestion is immense. 1

and, Unlike the Impressionists, Gauguin did not paint what he saw: he chose to see what he wanted to paint. And his ideas on what was paintable grew out of other art—from the broad color patches and rhythmic line of Japanese cloisonne and wood block prints, from rural Breton sculpture and the flattened, monumen- tal figures of a French artist he greatly admired, Puvis de Chavannes. Style absorbed him — the pervasive feedback of art style into nature. Even the fierce colors which scandalized some of his contemporaries were meant to be remote from nature." 2 and still, a man of deep spirituality.

two artists, two schools of artists, both on a search for truth (what else is there?), one by exploding illusion, the other by scraping it away. two paths leading to the same point. i find it unsurprising, given what we've learned about dow, the man, which route he chose.

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