Abstract Art in Japan

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It is very difficult to figure out which types of Japanese art have influenced the West and to what extent. Some Japanese wood-block prints were introduced to Paris in 1856, and in the last hundred years there have been various influences from Japan on contemporary art-movements in the Occident.
The interest which started with wood-block prints is now concentrated more on calligraphy and ink-drawings by Zen Buddhist monks, together with other works of a similar spirit. In the field of architecture, foreign interest has seemed to favor architecture connected with the tea ceremony -- a simple, functional type which Japan has developed in the last four centuries as well as landscapearchitecture of a similar nature. In other words, the Occident has been finding various different Japans in the last hundred years and finally is beginning to appreciate the fundamental characteristics of Japanese art -- simplicity, directness, and profundity.
It may have been that Shinto, the original native religion of Japan for more than two thousand years, was primarily responsible for encouraging above all, clarity and simplicity. Geographically, the humidity which is extremely high here has almost enforced cleanliness and a clear-cut impression of design upon the inhabitants. The Chinese philosophy of Lao-Tzu and Taoism, with its emphasis on simplicity and also primitiveness, was imported to Japan almost fifteen hundred years ago, to be welcomed by the people, especially poets and artists. This has naturally given a profound philosophical background to the original preference for simplicity. Japanese Buddhism, also nearly fifteen centuries old, was strengthened in its history's latter half by the Zen sect, which appealed deeply to the Japanese mind.
Extreme emphasis on directness in religious attitude and simplicity in daily life were demonstrated by Zen to encourage the native fondness for these qualities still further. Black ink-painting, in which the reality of the universe was rendered with a few strokes, became not only the people's favorite type of art, but the most respected. The fact that Chinese characters originating from pictographs, which the Japanese borrowed from China, allowed the art of calligraphy to be developed into an expressive abstract drawing. Both from practical necessity and artistic demand, the calligraphy of Japan developed perhaps further than the Chinese in the direction of abstract drawing.
The tea ceremony, together with its architecture and landscapearchitecture, owes most of its fundamental characteristics to Zen Buddhism; and in daily life, the most basic functionalism was practised through a genuine intuition. Perhaps there may exist a certain degree of misunderstanding about Zen. There are some who take it for a mysticism, but I believe that pure functionalism, which is at once intuitive and extremely rational -- in its design and execution of tea-architecture -- will persuade people to believe that besides being directly intuitive, Zen is super-rational instead of irrational and far from being purely mystical. Clarity and simplicity, first encouraged by native religion, have gained very strong support from Zen and further developed the various arts.
It is significant that a word corresponding to 'fine art' did not exist in Japan until about 1870. This does not mean that the fine arts did not exist in Japan. On the contrary, art permeated the life of the nation so widely and deeply that there was neither a word for art nor even a concept that denoted something distinct and apart.
Piet Mondrian once declared: 'Art will be realized in our daily life'. Not Mondrian alone, but many modern abstract artists have dreamed of this, and in the changes we see in architecture, industrial design, and the modes of contemporary life, this dream has become, or at least is becoming, real.
It is one of my beliefs that 'the realization of art in life' used to be more perfectly and perhaps more beautifully achieved in old Japan under the influences of Zen Buddhism, the tea ritual, and the art and nature-loving character of the people. This aspect of Japan is less known abroad than the decorative and the picturesque. But it should be clear that in the utter simplicity and functionalism of the Katsura Palace, or the pure abstraction of the Ryuanji stone and sand garden, we see not an exception but merely an example of the best.
The question then is -- why did we not continue along on this straight line?
After 1870 Japan began to accept Western civilization in all its aspects -- the politics, economy, industry, and general mode of living, including the concept and the word 'fine-art'. Curiously enough, at that very time when the impressionists and post-impressionists were busy learning the plastic elements of Japanese wood-block prints, the Japanese Government was sending young artists to France and Italy to learn the realism -- if not downright photographic naturalism -- of nineteenth-century western 'fine-art'.
Kakuzo Okakura ( 1862-1908) -- who was a student under the American professor of philosophy, Fenolosa, at Tokyo Imperial University, and who assisted in the writing of Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art -- became an influence in the art-world, and urged a revival of Oriental idealism in art and life. He brought together a group of artists who worked in the traditional Japanese media of water-color and ink-painting and wrote in English the now famous Book of Tea, which first appeared in 1906.
Since this period we have had two styles, Nihon-Ga -- traditional water-color and ink-painting, and yoga -- western oil and watercolor painting, which stand almost as symbols of the duality of contemporary Japanese life.
The Tokyo Municipal Gallery was built in 1926 with miles of walls on which it is possible to hang more than two thousand paintings. The gallery has a full schedule throughout the year; it exhibits countless items, almost seventy per cent of which are paintings; also sculpture, handicrafts, photography, calligraphy, and flowerarrangements. Furthermore, some twelve department stores maintain galleries, the larger with space for about two hundred works of art. In addition there are numbers of small galleries scattered throughout Tokyo. They can exhibit, however, only a fraction of the total output of artists and craftsmen. In fact, the art world in Japan is somewhat over-populated, and although generalizations of the trends and tendencies are dangerous, I shall nevertheless attempt some description of present artistic activities.
Photographically realistic works (of the type Japan met when she first began to know the West extensively) are still highly regarded, although the general trend in the Occident since that time has been a movement towards the abstract.
It seems to me that in general old Japan was 'newer' than the new Occident, while new Japan is apparently more old-fashioned than either the new Occident or old Japan itself. Few countries have achieved finer abstract (or at least abstractionistic) art than Japan of old; on the other hand, few peoples in the world are fonder of photographic realism than the Japanese of today. Japan, in fact, has become a most difficult place for the modern abstract artist to live and work in. Yet, since the 'twenties, a number of painters and sculptors have recognized the intrinsic values of modern western abstract art and worked along that line against a generally adverse and hostile public taste. Onchi and Kawaguchi, the older members of the Japan Abstract Art Club, were such forerunners. The others are younger artists whose work became abstract in the 'thirties.
In 1937 I published Abstract Art, a fully illustrated book with reproductions of works by Mondrian, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Arp, and other important Europeans. This was the first book to demonstrate the concepts of modern abstract art to Japan. In the same year the Jiyu Bijutsu (Free Arts) held the first of its annual exhibits, including canvases, sculptures, and constructions by Murai, Masaki Yamaguchi, Nishida, Ueki, and myself. This was the first important groupshow of exclusively abstract art. Takeo Yamaguchi and Yoshiwara in another exhibition, at about the same time, began to show strong abstract tendencies.
Abstract Art
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