"Beauty in the Eyes of the Japanese

"In looking at Japanese art, one should also consider how the Japanese themselves perceive beauty, and it is revealing to look at relevant words in the native language in order to get a clearer idea of the sensibilities that inspired objects, such as those illustrated in this book. What we find are words equating to the English word 'beautiful' that are suggestive of feelings, rather than any analytic criteria. In Japan, there was traditionally no attempt to define art in terms of measurement or proportion — as, for example, the way that the proportions of the human body were studied and idealized in Europe since the time of the ancient Greeks. Neither was there any rule of proportion, or layout within the limits of a frame, such as the golden section rule of composition in Western painting. And, as we have seen in the Zen Characteristics discussed previously, there was no concept of symmetry as having any aesthetically desirable balance as it is in the West.

"Even without such rules, however, Japanese artists/artisans did show the most remarkable genius in their arrangement of subjects within a frame — or any other limiting format, such as a ceramic bowl or a lacquered box — and in a way that, until the modern period, would have been difficult to imagine in the West. Examples can be seen in many paintings on folding screens and hanging scrolls that depict just the branch of a pine tree, for example, whereas almost all Western paintings until modern period would show the whole tree in 'proper' context between heaven and earth. It seems that whereas the Western artist starts with the frame and then proceeds to fill it, the Japanese artist/artisan focuses on what he wants to depict, and puts a frame (e.g., in the format of a hanging scroll or folding screen) around it. Such compositions were fascinating for Westerners when they first saw them, and had an enormous effect on their artistic thinking, after Japanese prints and paintings began to be imported into Western countries after the country opened up to foreign trade in the midst of the nineteenth century.

"But, considering the Japanese vocabulary, we find that in addition to many words that connote various aesthetic subtleties, the two most commonly heard in any discussion of beauty are utsukushii and kirei, and it is worth taking a look at their etymology to get an idea of what reverberates in the Japanese mind on hearing them. According to one scholar (Takashina, in Autumn Grass, pp. 10-12) the word utsukushii originally had a meaning of 'being loved,' and then evolved to assume a nuance of 'affection for small, fragile things,' and only extended to a broader meaning of 'beautiful' — in the sense of being pleasing to look at — during the Muromachi period (fourteenth-fifteen centuries).

"The word kirei, on the other hand, traditionally had a connotation of 'clean' — an image that is still associated with the word at the present time where, for example, it could be used to describe something quite mundane, such as a freshly-swept floor. One can conclude that the Japanese perceive beauty in things that are small, pure and clean, rather than those that are grandiose. But, even more than this, beauty is more a perception of what the object suggests in the mind of the viewer, rather than the object itself. Allusion and suggestion seem to strike a far deeper chord in the Japanese perception of beauty than direct expression. It is also notable that traditionally in the Japanese mind many of the nuances suggested by art had some link with the classical native verses, which touch upon both the sadness and delight that is conjured by nature and the passing seasons. For the Japanese, the beauty of an object lies in not just what can be seen, but also what is suggested — a nexus to other senses, other emotions, other layers of meaning that so intensify the aesthetic experience.

"In looking at Japanese art we can see other clues, too, in which reveal something of the way that the Japanese perceive beauty. With few exceptions — such as can be seen in the work of those artists who were influenced by imported European paintings — almost no Japanese showed any interest in depicting reality in its entirely. Figures were often painted with neither background nor context — particularly in the ukiyo-e depictions of courtesans or actors. This artistic device amazed Europeans when they first saw ukiyo-e prints in the mid-nineteenth century. But, then, within a few years, we see the same technique being imitated in the famous 1866 painting Boy Fife Player by Edouard Manet.

"Depictions of almost any subject were frequently made in beautiful but unrealistic colours, such as those seen on seventeenth-century ko-kutani ceramics, while gold and silver leaf was widely used to embellish figurative depictions, not only in paintings on paper or silk, but also in lacquer, ceramic wares and costumes. Paintings were frequently made not only to be seen by themselves, but were also used as a decorative background for the inscription of calligraphy. Pattern, too, was widely partnered with figurative depictions to make exciting, innovative designs, particularly during the decades following the late sixteenth century where there was so much artistic experimentation — a combination that was widely seen in costumes, ceramics and lacquer-wares. The idea of realism, or photographic representation, was almost always subjugated to other considerations and feelings.

"In addition, the concept of neatness and cleanliness connoted by the word kirei is apparent in the tendency to edit out the superfluous (again see the Zen characteristics described earlier), particularly in the arts connected with the practice of the tea ceremony. Hence, we see paintings where the monotone shades of ink are preferred to pigments, architecture that is devoid of ornament, leaving wood and bamboo in its natural bare state, and flower arrangements consisting of just one single, perfect bud.

"But this is not merely minimalism — with which Zen is so widely muddled and misunderstood these days in the West — but a way of focusing on what is really essential, so that beauty is enhanced. For example in the No drama, the stage is made of bare cypress wood and all participants except for the leading actor are soberly attired. But when the protagonist appears wearing a mask, clad in gorgeous, richly embroidered costume shimmering with gold leaf and carrying an exquisitely painted fan, one is able to concentrate on this magical, otherworldly figure without the impediments of competing visual distractions. Such elimination of the unnecessary extends also to the movements of the actor, so that a far more profound depth of emotion is expressed by a frozen stance, a slightly trembling fan, or the slow turn of the mask to catch shadow or light, that could ever be achieved by more energetic action.

"This sense of editing, focus and concentration is illustrated in a well-known story, which tells of a meeting between the famous tea master Sen no Riksyu and the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi. One summer, Rikyu cultivated some splendid morning glory plants in his garden that were much admired by his acquaintances in the tea world. Hearing of these, the Shogun solicited an invitation to a tea ceremony that was scheduled for very early morning when he could see the flowers at their best. On arriving, he was dismayed to find Rikyu's celebrated garden completely cleared with all the morning glory plants chopped down, and it was in a dark mood he entered the tearoom. But there, in the gloom of the tokonoma alcove, stood a rare Chinese bronze vase holding a single flower at the peak of its fragile perfection. Few would have risked upsetting the expectations of such a feared warlord (and on a later occasion, Rikyu did overstep the mark and was ordered by Hideyoshi to commit ritual suicide), but with brave and absolute sure taste, the tea master chose just one single bloom so that concentration could be focused singlemindedly on its evanescent beauty."