“The Sound of One Hand” is an ambitious exhibition of works by Hakuin, one of the great masters of Zen painting, which opens at Japan Society in New York on October 1. I very much look forward to seeing the exhibition there. After it closes in New York on
February January 9, it will travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art (12 Feb to 17 April 2011) and then to LACMA (22 May to 17 August).
Zen, known as Ch’an in China, was introduced to Japan in the Muromachi period (1333-1467), and many of the most famous Japanese ink painters from that period, including Sesshû, Shûbun, and Jôsetsu, were closely associated with Zen temples and painting styles inspired by Ch’an painters. While one could certainly write treatises on the ways in which these paintings represented and embodied Zen concepts and philosophies, suffice it to say that the type of depictions we today stereotypically associate with “Zen” in our pop culture / new age collective consciousness, at least here in the US, were pioneered by Hakuin.
The work of Sesshû, Shûbun, and Jôsetsu is refined, careful, and expert. Even when it looks sloppy, there is incredible skill and intentionality behind every single drop of ink. Granted, the same could be said of Hakuin. But, nevertheless, as skillful and intentional as his works may be, and as deep in religious meaning, there is an intentional amateurishness and artistic naivete to his works that sets them apart dramatically from those of several centuries prior.
The exhibition catalog for “The Sound of One Hand,” a review of which is the main purpose of this post, is gorgeous. As always in my reviews I will express that I, personally, have no intention of ever paying $65 for a book, and that I wish art books & exhibit catalogs did not regularly cost so much. But, pricing aside, it is clear that Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Stephen Addiss (co-authors/editors of the catalog and co-curators of the exhibition) and the book designers with whom they worked were not excessive in cutting corners, and have produced a beautiful book, in hardcover, with nice solid pages, and full-color images (for those few Hakuin works which are not monochrome to begin with). Many of the images even include the silk mounting on the scrolls, a small point, but an important one in helping the reader appreciate the impact and impression a work, along with its mounting, makes. As I may have mentioned in another blog post, one of my favorite works in the MFA Boston collection, “Hawks in a Ravine” by Kanô Hôgai, though a monochrome ink painting, was, when I saw it, mounted in a bold “Meiji blue” silk mounting (and I believe I was told this was the original mounting); the images of only the painting itself have a completely different impact. Another element of the book’s design which I find worthy of praise is the choice to include not only translations of the inscriptions on many of the works, but the transcription of the inscriptions in romanization. It was not long ago that art historians tended to overlook or entirely ignore inscriptions, and even today I would venture to guess that there are very few scholars outside of Japanese native speakers (or Chinese, Korean, etc.) who can read these inscriptions, which are so valuable to understanding the meaning, or double or secondary meaning, of a work.
Some of the inscriptions provide great insights, such as one on a painting of “Two Blind Men on a Bridge” (plate 4.3), which states “Both the health of our bodies / and the fleeting world outside us / are like the blind men’s / round log bridge – a mind/heart / that can cross over is the best guide.” I appreciate that the translator has left the translation of kokoro somewhat vague, in that the original meaning, encompassing both “mind” and “heart”, doesn’t really translate directly. An entire essay could be written on the meaning of the word kokoro alone.
Others are kôan, giving us something to contemplate, consider, and attempt to decipher, where the image itself might have simply made little impression at all. An image of an ox (plate 3.11) is inscribed with the kôan “An ox passes a window. / The top of its head, its four hooves all pass. / Why can’t its tail pass?”, inviting us to contemplate and to wonder at the deeper significance.
Professors Seo and Addiss were very smart, I think, in the way in which they broke from the standard catalog format for this book. A great many exhibit catalogs (though of course not all) open with a few essays, and consist in their core main section of just page after page of plates (images) with captions. Sometimes the captions can be quite lengthy, insightful, interesting, and informative, and of course half the point of an exhibit catalog to begin with is to highlight the images; they allow the reader to remember and revisit an exhibition after they have attended, or to experience an exhibition they did not attend. So, I do not by any means criticize this standard format; it absolutely has its strengths, and there are many good reasons for creating such a catalog.
But this catalog breaks from that form, reading more like a scholarly book on art history, with full paragraphs running through page after page, with the plates interspersed into the essays, and not separated out into their own section. The text mentions, describes, and analyzes each of the images within a broader argument or explanation, placing each work, and Hakuin’s oeuvre as a whole, into a broader historical, religious, and cultural context. Having done a little work on Hakuin myself, and having flipped through a rather extensive collection of most (all?) of his works, I recognize many of the individual images in “The Sound of One Hand,” but really, Hakuin’s ouevre, unlike those of most artists we might discuss, is not one of individual masterpieces, but of themes repeated over and over again. Read just a little about Hakuin, and you start to recognize individual images – this monkey as being a painting you’ve seen before, that monkey as being quite similar, but definitely not the one you’ve seen before – but in the end, it’s not about the one painting or the other. In acknowledgment of this aspect of Hakuin’s work, Seo and Addiss have chosen not to highlight individual works so much as they use those individual works as examples in discussions of broader themes. Hakuin produced many depictions of monkeys, of Kannon, of Hotei, Shôki, Bodhidharma, foxes, monks’ staffs, and other themes. No one works necessarily needs to be selected out as a masterpiece; it is much more productive to seek to understand Hakuin’s production as a whole, through discussion of these themes or motifs, and their religious significance.
In light of the wide popularity of Zen, and its prominence and status in American society as “new age”, as something everyone thinks they know or understand already, something seen everywhere we look, in calendars, self-help books, and posters, I think it important also to point out the great value of a book like “The Sound of One Hand.” It serves as a serious, academic, but still accessible account of what Zen and Zen painting are *really* all about, approaching the subject from an informed, scholarly, Japanese religious studies / art history point of view. It counters the myriad books on Zen painting written from a more “new age” point of view by ignoring them completely, and simply providing the scholarly account. Right off the bat, from the first pages of the Introduction, the book delves into Hakuin’s place in the history of Zen in Japan, providing names and dates, and ignoring completely “John Cage Zen” or the other kinds of Zen that have taken up residence in coffeeshops and yoga studios in the US. I poke fun at these new age appropriations of Zen (the catalog is quick to point out that there is no word “clapping” in Hakuin’s original quote, translated here more literally as ‘the sound of one hand’), but for those whose interest in Zen is serious and goes beyond “koan a day” calendars and yoga studio wisdom, I think that this exhibition and catalog are a wonderful opportunity to learn more, and to engage with the true depths of Zen thought.
I am sure there is plenty of controversy in the academic world as to how Hakuin’s works should be approached – as “art”, or as expressions of religious philosophy – and I am not well-versed enough in those subjects to judge which side(s) Seo and Addiss have come down on, whether I think they’ve picked the right side(s), or not, but just from skimming the essays, it looks like they have written a text that does not skimp on the historical details or scholastic integrity, but is still wonderfully accessible and engaging for the non-specialist. I hope that others, with less experience in Japanese studies, art history, and/or Buddhist studies than myself would agree.
I hope to find time soon to read through the book more thoroughly, and look forward to seeing the exhibition itself during winter break. I intend to return with a second book review, and my thoughts on the exhibit. Until then.
“The Sound of One Hand” opens at Japan Society (47th St and First Ave) on October 1, and runs until Jan 9. The catalog, from Shambhala Publications, Inc. is US$65, is on sale already, and should be widely available, wherever fine museum exhibition catalogs are sold.
All images are from Japan Society or Shambhala Publications websites, and are being used here only to represent the book and exhibition, for the sake of journalistic review. No claim of copyright is made.