One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets Explained by the Nurse Hyakunin – Hokusai (1760-1849)

Japanese Art

As I searched through websites on Japanese art looking for images which could enhance the reading experience – or, at least, provide a welcome pause to catch one’s breath in a text which may not be immediately clear – I found that the works of Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858) were particularly fitting as their brightly coloured landscapes, flowers, birds, etc. pointed to emptiness as they sort of stood out of it while reflecting a mood of empathy of the artist towards what he is painting. Produced at the end of the sakoku period (1633-1853) during which Japan was secluded from the outside world, just before the Meiji Era and Nishida’s lifetime, the works of these two artists show the things of the world as “felt” rather than just “seen,” with the conceptual contours used to identify the shapes almost superimposed on emptiness, combined with a seemingly tender attention to detail and bright colours infusing life into whatever is shown. Chinese art, which had influenced earlier Japanese paintings, was all emptiness and lines, often drawn in ink – therefore, without colour – and the overall impression on the viewer was that the point of drawing lines was to highlight the emptiness, seen as the intended subject of the work of art. As they developed their own style, the Japanese painters retained emptiness as the significant background, but switched the focus to the things standing in front of it, without erasing the emptiness within the things themselves, while breathing life into their works using bright colours. The insight imparted was that the really real was the phenomena, whose shapes were given by the conceptual mind, and colours by the feeling heart, all the while being really empty of substance. 

Western Art

Turning to later works produced during the Meiji period, I could only find rigid imitations of “traditional” themes or imitations of Western art, where impressionism had become the prevalent school. Impressionism developed in the 1860s in reaction to the “classical art” focusing on mythological themes that was taught at the Academy of Arts in Paris. A number of artists advocated the equivalent of a “return to experience,” and produced landscapes and other outdoor subjects seen at different times of the day, or under various weather conditions, trying to grasp the effect of light on what was shown, using bright colours applied to the canvas as patches and dots. Impressionist art seems to reflect William James’ pure experience of the “big blooming confusion,” representing what the West believes would be seen should we jettison all the concepts we use to understand what is around us.

Western art soon moved on to abstract art.  Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), regarded as one of the inventors of abstract art, was an exact contemporary of Nishida. Yet abstract art represents a rupture with the world as experience. It appears that impressionism, in fact, allowed artists to break free from reality, and throw themselves into free play with shapes and colours.

The art in the West which I found to be most congenial to the standpoint of emptiness is that of the post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), as well as Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) and the later art of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). Van Gogh was an admirer of Hiroshige and produced a few paintings in his style. Already in his early works, he focused on things and people encountered in everyday life, and was keen to show them as they were, in their uniqueness. When, during the very last years of his life, he added colour and produced his most celebrated works, he also turned all shapes into a flame-like vibrant scenery. One can see such vibrancy as the expression of a dynamic reality, though it has also been interpreted as the product of hallucinations. Cézanne is said to have painted his works very slowly, aiming to “touch” as well as see the things shown. Rousseau is classifed as a naïve artist, and he never actually saw the jungle scenes he represented. But I found him quite effective at showing “things as they are,” going as far as showing tigers and lions attacking and eating preys! Georgia O’Keeffe was strongly interested in shapes and colours, but she resisted the attraction toward abstraction prevalent in her time, and devoted her attention to actual representations of the many places where she lived (I, unfortunately, could use only one of her paintings, due to copyright restrictions). Post-impressionist artists are described as having re-introduced “structures” in their works. What makes these artists resonate with Japanese art and the standpoint of emptiness, is the strong empathetic grasp of the subjects, which they captured with their heart, rather than just their eyes, without, however, falling into the trap of (an ego-centred) subjective distortion, as is found in expressionnism. Instead they took an affirmative stance toward the things of the world, which seemingly enhances “that” they are “for themselves,” “on their home-ground,” resplendent in their own glory, beyond “what” they are for us.

The difference between this post-impressionist art, and Eastern art, however, is that in the former the entire canvas remains filled with paint. Its world remains a full world, it is not a pregnant emptiness out of which shapes and colours emerge, and on which they seem to float. In post-impressionism, things still belong to a world of being, they have only become the focus of a celebration of life in its factuality and diversity. 

Ironically, the refocusing on structures, shapes and lines, was eventually pushed to its extreme by cubism, and much of abstract art, to the point that, though colour remained important, the things themselves vanished in abstract art. What had started as a return to the actual world ended up with its total disappearance in abstract and conceptual art, a sad unfolding which brings to mind Heidegger’s assertion, when comparing the cup used in a tea ceremony and the disposable one-time use cup used for take-away hot drinks – that humankind had already killed “the thing” – all things, reality – in thought before it proceeds to carry out its actual destruction. When looking at some art installations exhibited in museums of modern art today, one cannot help feeling that the West has failed to overcome nihilism. Even when the message is that ordinary things can be seen as art – as it is a matter of the way you look at them – modern art rarely succeeds at restoring a sense of the phenomenal as the really real and sacred reality.

Langlois Bridge in Arles with Washing Women – 1888 – Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)