In the Western world, aesthetics is considered to be the branch of philosophy that is concerned with concepts of value and beauty as they relate to the arts.
Aesthetics, in the broadest sense, may be thought of as a world view, a view that may be markedly different in other cultures. Because of possible differences in world views and aesthetic stances of non-Western cultures, it is important to set aside Western aesthetics as criteria when making judgments about non-Western art.
The aesthetics of Japan developed in a unique fashion, partly because of its isolation from the world.It is only then, over the centuries, that interactions with foreign cultures influenced the traditional arts and aesthetics of Japan. For example, the Japanese made no distinction between fine arts and crafts prior to the introduction of such ideas by Europeans in the 1870s.
The Japanese aesthetic is nature-based and concerned with the beauty of studied simplicity and harmony with nature, expressed in every aspect of daily life. This concept of harmony in all things is called wabi-sabi. But since it represents a comprehensive Japanese world view, it is difficult to explain precisely in western terms.
To sum-up, wabi-sabi express a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble. It is the beauty of things unconventional. It correlates with the concepts of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes the importance of transcending ways of looking and thinking about existence.
Now, let’s try to understand this very peculiar world view through what we consider to be the Elements & Principles of design.
Hokusai, Kisoji no oku Amida ga taki “Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road”, circa 1832.
Hokusai plays with our minds through the notion of point in this print: on the one hand, there are two “point of focus”: a little scene on the left, where two men admire the view from their spectacular “vantage point”, and the main point of focus, the round hollow of the waterfall which evoques the “round eye” of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light. This symbolism haves recourse to the notion of Gestalt, or “psychology of the form”, as the nearly perfect circle of the hollow is intended for the viewer to complete it in his own mind.
Suzuki Ozamu (1921-2001), Japan, Kyoto, 1987.
This piece of ceramic, which emulates the form of a Japanese thumb, has a very simple and pure line design. The peaceful structure is all about its smooth, horizontal and vertical lines which give it an harmonious shape. Horizontal lines evoke rest and stability, and the slightly longest vertical lines, spirituality.
Takiguchi Kazuo (b.1953), Stoneware with matte glaze, Japan, Kyoto, 1996.
This sculpture is tailored from a single sheet of clay, and the artist smoothed away all traces of fabrication. This process result in a full, smooth, three-dimensional sculpture, whose organic shape evokes the forms of a human or animal body. The way it occupies space, with its full, few and gathered body parts, demonstrates the notion of “positive form”.
Activities of the Twelve Months of the Year, by Nishikawa Sukeyuki, Japan, Edo Period, 18th Century. Handscroll, Ink on Paper.
Japanese scrolls such as this one read from right to left and provide an ideal format for design such as this representation of the activities of the twelves months of the year: Indeed, the chronological arrangements of motifs follows the linear movement of the eye through the composition. As the reader unroll the the scroll, he is “acting” the work of art, which creates intimacy between the “public” and the work itself.
Landscape with Flowering Vines, Japan, Momoyama or early Edo period, early 17th century. Six panels folding screen; Ink, color, gold and silver on paper.
The series of panel exposed at the Freer Gallery perfectly illustrate the symbolic power of color. Indeed, the extensive use of gold in large-format Japanese paintings, such as folding screens and sliding panels, is not merely decorative: Gold not only reflects daylight or lamplight, imparts a translucent quality to the clouds and landscapes depicted. It was also strongly believed to have a protective power, which explains why it was so much used.
Kitamura Junko (b. 1956), Kyoto, Japan, 1993. Stoneware with black matte slip and white slip inlay.
The pattern of this ceramic is composed of hundreds of hands-carved stamps. The repeated marks, inlaid with white liquid clay against the dark surface, resemble undulating strings of tiny bead. This composition confirms in some way the theory according to which there are a limited number of pattern, this one would fit the “flow pattern” category.
Incense Cabinet, Edo Period or Meji Era, 19th Century.
This incense box relation to texture is particularly interesting: Indeed, the finish so closely resemble a gleaming metallic surface that it almost appears to be the work of a goldsmith rather than a lacquer artist. However, it is only made of lacquer on wood… It is easy to be fooled, isn’t it?
Heron and Willow, Hanabusa Hitcho (1652-1724), Japan, Edo Period. Ink and color on paper.
The visual equilibrium of this composition, in other words, its “balance”, is provided by the position of the Heron. The tiny branches and the frail foot of the bird give a feeling of fragilness. However, as the body of the bird is symmetrically standing on this foot, which follows the axial vertical line of the panel, it seems firmly settled.
Kongorikishi, Kamakura Period, early 14thcentury, wood.
This dramatically posed figure is paired with an other which faces this one on the other side of a corridor of the Freer gallery. These sculpture were originally created to stand guard at the entrance of a temple, and represents the “benevolent kings” who are said to have protected Buddha. Their exaggerated proportions are certainly designed to inspire fear, and to evoke strength and power: Not only are they incredibly muscular, with wide eyes and mouth, but they are also way taller than a human being.
Hokusai, Handscroll with Miscellaneous Images, Edo Period, 1839 overall dimensions of scroll 37.2×1434.
Hokusai’s work gives special attention to placement and arrangement of object and space within the format of a picture, which confers a peculiar rhythm to his compositions. This is an other example of Japanes scrolls, which creates a timed movement through the work of the artist: the eye follow the elements one by one, and those are regularly spaced and repeated to create a sense of regularity and repetition.
Utagawa Torohayu, A Winter Party, (1735-1814), Japan, Edo Period, Hanging scroll mounted on panel, Ink, color, and gold on silk
The scene displayed in this piece represents a party in an elite restaurant. However the attention the artist payed in depicting the background of the painting, the emphasis is put on the different figures, first, through the contrast of their clothes’ vivid colors and the winter garden’s neutral colors and smooth hue. Secondly, by placing them in a central and symmetrical position.