Tuesday, May 13, 2008

An Essay on Japanese Painting

Trees in Fog, Hasegawa Tohaku, 16th century

Here's a lovely essay by Elatia Harris, writing at 3 Quarks Daily.
This shattering masterpiece [Trees in Fog, above], 24 feet long, and according to a 2001 poll, Japan's best loved painting, is neither juxtaposed areas of color nor line in the sense of outline. Using enormous brushes, Tohaku made a brush stroke the very shape of a trunk, a bough, a clump of pine needles. So that line is never exactly descriptive, in that you can't separate it from form. The radiant fog here is what establishes distance, some trees standing before us, roots to crown, others veiled. You know the forest is dense, for you can see trees that are pushed aslant by the growth of others, yet a shimmering bright fog is everywhere moving in and out. The painting itself has almost an aural quality -- of deep hush. You can tell that if it were not for Chinese civilization, which changes everything it impinges on, and has always done, this work would not have come into being, but it's also yamato-e incarnate.
The essay is also a love letter to the little books that English speakers in Japan grow up with. For Elatia Harris, the cherished author is Elise Grilli, a writer on Japanese art history. Personally, my little Japanese world was created through the famed works of Japanese aesthetics translated into English and published by Kodansha or Kenkyusha: Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, Okakura's The Book of Tea, and also, later, the masterpieces of Japanese literature, including the very first novel, Lady Murasaki's early 11th-century work, The Tale of Genji, translated by the ubiquitous and apparently tireless Arthur Waley. Kodansha also reproduced the magical essays of the 19th century Greek-Irish-American (and finally Japanese) expatriate, Lafcadio Hearn. But... these are just small personal connections to Harris' wonderfully transporting essay.

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