Art on Tuesday: Monkey Bridge

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This is a woodblock print of the Monkey Bridge 猿槁 in the Kai Province 甲斐國 made by Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重 (1797-1858) in 1841/42. The old bridge is located in the Yamanashi Prefecture and was rebuilt in 1984. You find more interesting pictures of the Sarubashi Bridge here.

Art on Tuesday: Jumping Down Kiyomizu-dera

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This girl is jumping down from the veranda of  Kiyomizu-dera, the temple of pure water, located in Kyôto. If she survives, her wish will be granted. Actually several people jumped down here during the Edo period, but it was pretty dangerous. The ukiyo-e was painted by Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木 春信 (1725-1770).

清水寺 is still one of the most famous temples in Japan, founded in 778 and belongs to the New Seven Wonders of the World. You will get an impressive view of the temple on their Japanese website.

Art on Tuesday: Bonfire

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Hasegawa Sadanobu I 長谷川貞信 (1809-1879) painted this ukiyo-e ca. 1870/71 named 如意嶽大文字. It is a landscape picture of the Nyoigatake mountain area in Kyôto. The tradition of bonfire is widely known in Japan until today, as seen in pictures here. The biggest bonfire in Japan is held on top of the Daimonji-yama in the shape of the Japanese character 大 meaning “big”.

The picture is part of a collection at the  Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Book Review: The Book of Tea

thebookofteaThe Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzô  岡倉 覚三 (1862-1913)  is an insightful book about the history of tea and the traditions of tea drinking, the art of the tea ceremony, its religious and philosophical background of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

It begins with the interesting introduction about The Cup of Humanity:

“Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism—Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

This first lines drew me into the book and further on I learned about the different Schools of Tea mainly in Japan and China, about different techniques of “the Boiled Tea, the Whipped Tea, and the Steeped Tea”, I had not known about before.

I also liked the fourth chapter, where the author writes about the design and function of a traditional tea-room, which you find even nowadays in Japan.

All in all it is written in a clear style, poetic and philosophical. Although it is a small booklet with about 60 pages it was very influential in the West. Interestingly it was originally written in English. Today it is a classic book about tea and a delightful read.

There are many printed versions of the book on the market since it was published first in 1906. I cannot say, which one is preferable, because I read the ebook available for free at gutenberg.org. 

Okakura Kakuzô: The Book of Tea, 1906.

Art on Tuesday: Magic Lantern

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Female Amusements of the Five Festivals by the Japanese painter Kitagawa Utamarô (1753 – 1806), one of the great masters of ukiyo- e in the Edo period. This picture was made in 1806. It shows a  wooden magic lantern. These Utsushi-e  写し絵  became very popular in the 19th century, after they have been imported by Dutch Christian missionaries and modified by Japanese artists.

Book Review: The Hare With Amber Eyes

thehareThe Hare with Amber Eyes is beautifully written and takes the reader on a journey  through a family history of  nearly 200 years.

The author Edmund de Waal, a ceramicist, tells the story of the Ephrussi, his family, who had been a very wealthy and well-known European Jewish banking dynasty.

The story’s central theme is the rise and fall of the Ephrussi, symbolized by a collection of netsuke 根付, ivory or wooden miniature sculptures from Japan. The collection of 264 of these tiny objects were passed down as inheritance through five generations of the Ephrussi from 1871 until today and took station in Odessa, Paris, Vienna, London and Tokyo throughout their journey.

The story starts with reflections about art history and the author’s quest for his family history. The first chapters can be seen more as an essay about Western art and Japonism than a personal story, because only few details of his family history are certain. Reading through the first passages of theoretical thoughts is rewarding, because  you gain insights of both art and his family history. When the story evolves more personally, it becomes very emotional. The beginning is not easy to read, but the more you read, the more his personal story carves out.

In search of his family roots Edmund de Waal creates a personal atmosphere by visiting the places, where his family members once had lived. The chapters draw you into his search and into the live of his family. De Waal develops a very moving history of about 200 years.  It is a very fascinating book, a moving family history.

Edmund de Waal: The Hare with Amber Eyes. 2010.

Art on Tuesday: Best Wishes for the New Year

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This ukiyo-e by Kitagawa Utamaro 喜多川 歌麿 (1753- 1806) is about hatsu yume, the first dream of the New Year. It is a good sign, if you dream of one of the following three items:  ichi-fuji, ni-taka, san-nasubi, that is:  first about Mount Fuji, second about a hawk and third about an eggplant. If you have one of these auspicious dreams, you will have a good year!

Thank you for the pleasure of your friendship and goodwill during the past year. I wish you a wonderful holiday season and a New Year full of happiness and prosperity.

Book Review: Japanese Design. Art, Aesthetics & Culture

japanesedesignPatricia J. Graham is a professor and museum curator of Japanese art with a profound educational and practical background and she is the author of many books of Japanese art.

Japanese Design. Art, Aesthetics & Culture was recently published. The book comes with a well constructed content, elaborated articles and beautiful pictures. Therefore it makes anyone, who is interested in Japanese art, familiar with the terms of aesthetics and many examples of Japanese Art and Design. Patricia J. Graham exposes the main characteristics and writes about Japanese art seen through Western eyes on a historical background. This gives the reader a manyfolded overview and new insights into Japanese art.

You can either use the book as a good reference guide or you can read it from page one to the end. The content is profound and it is addressed to the art adept as to the beginner. Patricia J. Graham defines the basic Japanese aesthetic terms and she names their roots in Japanese religion and philosophy. She reflects upon it’s influences in Japan and it’s reception of designers, artists and architects around the world, interesting for further studies.

In the first part about the aesthetics of Japanese Design
she introduces terms like shibui, as a key term of the highest level of beauty, then wabi-sabi, the essence of Japanese beauty and iki (chic and sophisticated beauty), which she links mainly to the ukiyo or floating world, and gives many definitions further on in this chapter.

In the second part the author formulates ten key characteristics of Japanese Design giving many examples and a rich selection of colorful pictures.

The third part focuses on the early promoters of artistic Japan from the 1830’s to 1950’s, where you meet old acquaintances and new faces: John La Farge, Arthur Wesley Dow, Phillip Franz von Siebold, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Fenollosa, just to mention some of the most influential personalities, who deal with Japanese art.

In addition you find a  glossary and a reading list at the end of the book.

My general impression: I have read many books on Japanese art and many of the books chose to guide their reader through history from the early beginnings to the present time and this can be boring sometimes. This book is a real fresh view on Japanese art and the professional photo material is just beautiful and makes it very valuable. A very good book!

Japanese Design. Art, Aesthetics & Culture by Patricia J. Graham was recently published in 2014 by Tuttle.

Book Review: The Old Capital by Kawabata Yasunari

theoldcapitalKawabata‘s novel can be seen as a declaration of love to Kyôto.

Kyôto was the capital of Japan and the imperial residence for more than thousand years until 1868. Many of the historic monuments of ancient Kyôto were declared as UNESCO world heritage. The city is a symbol of high art and cultural heritage and the heart of traditional Japan. An overwhelming huge amount of ancient Buddhist temples, Shintô shrines, imperial palaces and traditional gardens are to be found here. Kyôto is known for it‘s cultural refinement in every way you can think of Japanese art. The most important works of art and traditional Japanese culture are located in Kyôto. Even it‘s cuisine is praised as outstanding.

The story is about a young woman named Chieko, the adopted daughter of a traditional kimono designer in Kyôto around the first half of the 20th century.

The reader is introduced to Chieko and gets to know about her life and her relationships with a handful of persons. The story begins describing her relationship with her boyfriend Shin‘ichi and her parents. The story itself is very simple. There is not much thrill. When she reveals her own family history, it brings a new perspective to the story and some tension to the narration.

The story takes place at very popular places, for example at the Heian shrine and Kiyomizu-dera. Therefore those who have been in Kyôto can picture the story very well. You can even see the way before your eyes Chieko and Shin‘ichi are walking. I think this novel is a very good read, when you are planning to visit Kyôto and I suppose, it has been read by generations of visitors.

Kawabata takes his time with his narration. He is describing the nature minutely detailed. This is one of his basic style elements. I have the impression, Kawabata emphasizes nature, because it is stronger than man himself. Of course it underlines the ever-lasting beauty of the Japanese setting in Kyôto.

The story begins in spring. Chieko is standing in the garden of her parents. She is adoring two violets growing on a maple tree. She is absorbed in thought, in a status of contemplation and so is the reader.

The narration takes a period of a whole year and Kawabata is describing the changes of nature along with the seasons. This is a very important Japanese topic in art and culture as a whole, as the four seasons are very distinctive in Japan.

Kawabata‘s descriptions and his narration is beautiful and he has the wonderful talent to expose the beauty of every single character and place in Kyôto. He needs no big story. Therefore this novel was mentioned as one of his three works, when he was awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1968. The other two are Thousand Cranes and Snow Country.

川端 康成, 古都, 1962. The Old Capital, 1962. Revised translation by J. Martin Holman, 1987.

Book Review: Kokoro by Natsume Sôseki

kokoroKokoro こころ means heart, soul or true spirit. The novel was written in 1914 on the heights of the author‘s career. Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) was born in Tôkyô and became a professor of English Literature at the Imperial University in the Japanese capital after his work as a governmental scholar in England for three years. He resigned because of boredom at his University post and became a fulltime writer in 1907. Until today he is a role model for many Japanese authors and his portrait is to be found on the 1000-yen banknote.

The main topic of this novel is the loneliness of man in modern society, the loss of orientation due to modernization processes and the consequences of loosening family structures in Japan. During the story the death of Emperor Meiji 明治天皇 occurs, who was the symbol of Japan in a period (1867 to 1912) of vast political changes, when Japan was evolving from a „feudal state to a capitalistic and imperialistic power“. What makes it important to the narration is the suicide of General Nogi shortly afterwards! He committed ritual suicide together with his wife referring to the samurai tradition of following one’s lord into death. This is called junshi  殉死 . It was a spectacular act, that shocked the Japanese nation and the motif of General Nogi was vividly discussed. Why has he killed himself at this time, why had he waited so long.

„Sensei“, the central character of Kokoro, is also using this expression junshi 殉死 when he is talking to his wife about his own suicide intentions. In his case junshi means devotion towards a close friend, which he had once betrayed. He is not able to overcome his feelings of guilt. Therefore his real intention of killing himself is grounded on his grief and has nothing to do with the Emperor. But viewing from the outside, one could or should think, that his motif is based on his devotion to the Emperor. Natsume Sôseki draws no explicit conclusions about General Nogi’s intentions, but Kokoro has been discussed in reference to these parallels.

The story

The narrator of the first two chapters will remain without a name throughout the story, he is telling the story from the first person‘s perspective. It begins with his view of his relationship with „Sensei“ (master), as he addresses him respectfully. It takes place in Tôkyô, where the narrator has just graduated from University and is now seeking for a job. The narrator admires an elder fellow, an independent academic, who hides a dark secret before everyone, even his wife. Every now and then „Sensei“ goes to a graveyard in the neighbourhood in order to pay his respect to an unknown dead person. But he will not tell anyone about the background story. The young narrator is fascinated by the wise „Sensei“ and seeks to understand his mysterious behavior. The friend seems to be depressed on a deep-rooted level.

Stricken into his own family business due to the illness of his father, the young academic has to leave Tôkyô for a while. He stays at his father‘s house, when the death of the Emperor Meiji and the suicide of General Nogi hit the news. The family is discussing the shocking events, when surprisingly the young narrator receives a very long letter from „Sensei“ — it is his death letter.

This becomes the last chapter of the novel. The perspective changes: The reader is now getting to know the autobiographical story told from the perspective of „Sensei“ in the first person. „Sensei“ makes his confession about a big failure and the consequences of this deep self-inflicted burden.

This novel‘s interesting structure intertwines the two main characters and yet leaves the young academic behind. The story is well written. Every single move is well observed. The story is lively, very detailed, psychologically rich. The beauty of Natsume Sôseki’s writing is defined by his ability to describe the  inner thoughts of both characters so realistically, which makes everything understandable. This book is one of the must-reads of modern Japanese Literature.

The book was also made into a film twice by Kon Ichikawa in 1955 and by Kaneto Shindo in 1973.

夏目 漱石: こころ, 1914. Natsume Sôseki: Kokoro, translated by Edwin McClellan 1957. The Japanese text can be found here at aozora