Takashina Shūji (author), Matt Treyvaud (translator), Japanese Art in Perspective: East-West Encounters, Japan Library, 2021. 191 pgs.
An amateur of Japanese art might have heard about ukiyo-e (or floating painting), as well as the general fact of its influence on Claude Monet, alongside other prominent Western painters. Thanks to Matt Treyvaud’s marvellous English translation of Takashina Shūji’s work, however, readers from across the globe can understand a great deal of not only the genetic influence of Japanese art on its Western counterpart, but also the core disparity in aesthetics between the two, not to mention their strong connection ever since the Meiji era, during which numerous Japanese artists or would-be-artists studied abroad to acquire Western painting techniques.
Japanese Art in Perspective: East-West Encounters is a collection of essays grouped into three sections. The first focuses on the uniqueness of Japanese aesthetics, and how Japanese artists perceive nature from an entirely different perspective than their Western counterparts. Particularly, it points out that Japanese pictures are “flat”, not because of the painters’ lack of realism but because they choose to roam freely rather than employing a fixed perspective. By citing Monet’s Water Lilies, a work apparently under the influence of the East, its “trailing bough” motif is an example of how Japanese art evokes the whole by painting a fragment.
The second section deals first with the detailed trajectory of Japanese reform in fine arts in the Meiji period, as well as a series of avant-garde movement. Then, it tackles the ambiguous term japonisme, making use of art curator Geneviève Lacambre’s four key stages of reception by one culture of another—discover, adopt, assimilate, and create—before verifying meticulously the influence of Japanese art on artists like Manet and Monet.
The third section highlights Japanese artists’ predilection for painting the transition of four seasons in a single image. Another unique characteristic outlined in the same section is the concurrent use of images and words in the same Japanese picture, whereas in Western painting, images and words often belong to two exclusive worlds.
The book demonstrates Takashina’s shrewd, professional observation of the differences in art between the East and West. Entirely ignorant of paintings, I was convinced by his concise etymological approach to the Japanese word utsukushii, equivalent to the English “beautiful”, which he traces to the classics Tale of the Bamboo Cutter and Kokinshū to conclude that Japanese artists have a strong preference for small, delicate and miniaturised forms of art to express their sense of beauty. This reminds me of the gachapon, a vending machine of capsule toys currently popular in Japan. The toys inside the capsule, though small, are moulded in detail and intricately fabricated to attract not only children, but also keen collectors of a wide range of ages.
What the author points out about the Japanese disposition to integrate art in daily life and human activities also reminds me of Tanaka Tatsuya, a contemporary artist/photographer who creates miniature landscapes with everyday objects such as fruit, vegetables, kitchen utensils and stationery.
The delineation of the gap between East and West in perception of heritage is equally stimulating. Citing Mishima Yukio’s essay, Takashina seems to emphasise that Japanese people define the word “authenticity” as the “idea” to outlive the form rather than conserving the form itself. Therefore, Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮, Ise Jingū), despite being regularly rebuilt with new materials, should also be recognised by the world as an important heritage and UNESCO should reconsider the definition of “Important Cultural Property”, as the art historian advises near the end of the book.
I trust that the word “authenticity” has an understanding unique in Japan, as what is cherished appears to be neither the materials nor the object but the craftsmanship. Thus, while a Japanese professional craftsman teaches everything he knows, an apprentice constantly endeavours to inherit all the skills from his master. I faintly recall learning from an NHK documentary how the skills of crafting a statue of the Buddha are passed on to the next generation, and how the master teaches the apprentice whole-heartedly even though the two share no kinship ties, something that might be unlikely to happen in the Sinophone world.
There is indeed a lot to be gained from the Japanese art critic’s singular persuasive perspective of art appreciation. His insight into the different aesthetics might have developed from his studying modern Western art history in France, which is borne out by his other book Seikimatsu geijutsu (Fin-de-siècle, Chikuma Gakugei Bunko). The main contribution of that book is Takashina takes none of the Western art concepts, such as futurism, Dadaism, surrealism or other -isms as the central focus but instead examines the (re)formation of all ideas together through looking at exhibitions such as the Antwerp world fair, the Exposition Internationale d’Anvers (1894) and various art magazines. It is a comprehensive book covering architecture and advertising as well as painting. Hopefully, it can like Japanese Art in Perspective, be translated into English and reach a greater readership.
The English translator has done a wonderful job of reproducing the conciseness and the persuasiveness of Takashina’s original. What I am especially fond of about the translated version is the coloured paintings featured at the beginning of the book, which can allow the reader to better appreciate the pictures while enjoying the Takashina’s superb analyses. Japanese Art in Perspective: East-West Encounters is recommended not only for experts in Japanese art but also for anyone keen to learn more about fine art.
Takashina Shūji (2008). Seikimatsu geijutsu. Chikuma Gakugei Bunko.
——(2009). Zōho nihon bijutsu o miru me: higashi to nishi no deai. Iwanami Shoten.
How to cite: Au, Kin-Pong James. “(Re)formation of Ideas: Japanese Art in Perspective.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 16 Dec. 2021, https://chajournal.blog/2021/12/16/japanese-art/.
James Au Kin-Pong is a Master’s graduate of both Hong Kong Baptist University and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo, writing his dissertation about the relation between history and literature through close readings of East Asian historical narratives in the 1960s. His research interests include Asian literatures, comparative literature, historical narratives and modern poetry. During his leisure time, he writes poetry and learns Spanish, Korean and Polish. He teaches English at Salesio Polytechnic College and literature in English at Tama Art University. His Cha reviews can be found here.