Posts Tagged ‘Japanese design’

As with Japanese architecture, “design” has very much the potential – or should I say the danger – of you ending up with a coffee table book, full of beautiful pictures but with very little content. There is also the risk of ending up with a book where the content is all hand-wavey, Orientalist (or bordering on Orientalist) talk about the simple elegance of Japanese design, one where the author is just so captivated, so stunned, by his/her admiration for the simplicity and refinement of the style that they are unable to say anything meaningful. Thankfully, and as I expected, Graham, a former professor and curator at the University of Kansas, is not that author.

She organizes the book in an interesting fashion, with a series of sections on individual aesthetics such as iki, miyabi & fûryû, wabi & sabi, and kabuku & basara, followed by, in Chapter Two, a few pages on religious influence in design, and then a lengthy section on “Ten Key Characteristics” of “design in Japanese culture.” These ten feel like they border on an Orientalist approach, I’m afraid to say – perhaps it is because they are presented in a list as they are, as though these were the definitive, categorical aspects to understanding the fundamental notions underlying all of Japanese culture. And yet, at the same time, even as you run the risk of reifying all the old stereotypes, it’s not as if these things aren’t at least partially true. Japanese design does show great attention to detail, appreciation of changing seasons, and so forth.

In the third chapter, Graham provides brief biographies (roughly half a page to a full page) of a series of prominent 19th-20th century Westerners who “introduced” Japanese art & design to the West, and played key roles in promoting it. This is kind of nice, for me in particular as I’m always looking for info I can adapt directly into the Samurai-Archives Wiki, and its a fine way to learn a little more about the likes of Denman Waldo Ross, Arthur Wesley Dow, Laurence Binyon, and Theodore Duret.

Overall, there’s a lot of good information in this book, introducing readers to proper Japanese terms for a variety of aesthetic categories, for example, and there are tons of gorgeous pictures. Still, overall, it feels a bit scattered. I wonder if the book might have been better, stronger, if it focused on just one of these three chapters, and expanded on those themes into the full length of the book. As much as I enjoy the opportunity to read more about these prominent Western “promoters of Japanese art,” for example, a book which devotes more than a few pages to each of a number of aesthetic categories – iki, wabi & sabi, etc. as mentioned above – might feel meatier.

One thing Graham’s book certainly is not, which I sort of expected it might be, is a detailed description of individual creators – Yanagi Sôri, Tange Kenzô, George Nakashima, Rosanjin – and their works. For better or for worse, it is instead a broader-ranging discussion of aesthetics and style throughout many aspects of Japanese arts & design, touching upon architecture, painting, ceramics, lacquerware, and numerous other arts but each only briefly or tangentially. There is great value to this book, for sure, but when I think of all the things it leaves out – it is neither an in-depth discussion of individual creators, nor a systematic treatment of styles of architecture, pottery, or woodworking, nor does it delve into the aesthetics and style of objects normally outside the realms of art history – things just a little too everyday – – well, I guess I’m just a bit undecided about the book. It’s definitely very beautifully put together, though, and the information it provides is undoubtedly high quality and reliable. For under $20 (it’s $24.95 cover price, but even on Tuttle’s own page it’s showing $17.47 right now), you could do a lot worse.

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*Yanagi Sôri, pioneer and giant in Japanese design, has passed away at age 96. I’ve read about his father, Yanagi Sôetsu 柳宗悦 (aka Muneyoshi), the founder of the mingei (folk art) movement. Sôetsu is a rather interesting character, his philosophies described by one prominent scholar as “Oriental Orientalism,” as he combatted the growing urbanization, industrialization, mechanization, of his world in the 1890s-1920s or so by turning to rural folk crafts, and to places like Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and Ainu lands, where he saw the waves of modernization had not yet reached, or had not yet soaked in as much, where the beauty of “traditional” handicrafts by anonymous craftspeople (i.e. absent the advent of the “modern” concept of the artist) could still be found.

I know less about his son, Yanagi Sôri 柳宗理, and would not mean to presume Sôri’s leanings, Orientalist or otherwise, but it seems beautifully fitting that the son should become such a pioneer in Japanese design, combining what is beautiful and romantic about rural handicrafts with a modern design sensibility. I am sure that his influence extends much farther, and deeper, than I know.

And, yet, there is still no Wikipedia article on him. I wonder if the added/renewed attention from his death will lead to that changing.

*Meanwhile, in other news, io9 and WIRED report on a series of studies (or the same study?) which reveal the power of the canon on our appreciation of art. The mythology of art appreciation in the West tells us that the best art, the true masterpieces, speak to us on some subconscious level, that it’s that stroke of genius that makes them so beautiful, so compelling, so much deeper and more meaningful and more powerful than a nearly identical work by a lesser painter. That there is something hidden in the master’s brushstrokes, or his technique or composition otherwise, that makes the work cross some threshold into masterpiece status.1

Yet, as we might expect, it is not (solely) the beauty or genius of the artwork that speaks to us; the canon, that is, the idea that we know that we are looking at something famous (or by someone famous) and that we ought to recognize it as a cut above, has a powerful impact on our reception of an object as well. Scientists using an fMRI machine to watch people’s brain activity as they were shown images of paintings have now added to the evidence for that phenomenon. Shown pictures by Rembrandt and told they were not by the master and were merely done by his students – or shown works by his students and imitators and told they were by Rembrandt himself – people’s brains lit up less in response to anything intrinsic to the skill or genius of the visuals themselves, responding more to the idea of it being a Rembrandt, or not being a Rembrandt.

Now, the questions and issues surrounding “authenticity” and the concepts of “copies” and “forgeries” are quite popular subjects in the field of art history right now, and I think both of these articles carelessly slip in their word choice here. But, it is my assumption that when they talk about “forgeries” or “copies,” they’re not talking about things produced to deceive, or mechanical or digital reproductions of Rembrandt’s work; they’re talking about genuine, oil-on-canvas, original artworks produced in the Renaissance period by Rembrandt’s students. Not what I would call a “copy” or a “forgery.” … I think it important, and interesting, to note this. But, even so, these findings, if not unexpected, are pretty cool, eh?

It really just helps us call in question all the more so our assumptions about art, about the “genius” of the artist, and about the selection of the canon. We appreciate Rembrandt because we believe we are supposed to, because we have been trained by society, by museums, by art history class, by textbooks, to think that if we don’t see the genius in these works then there is something wrong with us, and not with the artwork. It ties in as well to discourses & social phenomena of cultural capital, and trying to be part of the cultural elite. It may be passé to just stand around and talk about how much you like the Old Masters as if nothing new has come along, and/or as if you don’t have an original thought in your head… it may be “cool” or “hip” to pretend like Michelangelo wasn’t really such a genius after all. But if you tried to argue for that seriously, at a fancy black-tie event in the Metropolitan, with a glass of wine in your hand, well, I don’t know what would happen.

The great masters, and the great masterpieces of history are considered as such because of some superior quality intrinsic to them, absolutely. At the core of every myth, there is a kernel of truth. But, we build up and build up the legends of painters, and of their artworks, appreciating them more for their fame than for their actual content, and being aware of that is a most important step towards revising our individual personal engagement with artworks, if not the entire system.

*Finally, for today, a brief article describing one of the leading book/paper conservation labs in Europe. The Institute of the Pathology of the Book in Rome has handled countless super-famous objects, including pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and objects involved in dramatic historical events – such as a book riddled with bulletholes from a World War II battle, and does very interesting, exciting, and extremely important work.

I’ve commented before on art conservation; I’m just fascinated by it. I think it’s really amazing what these people do.

The article refers vaguely to “a special paper used to ‘reconstruct’ damaged pages” made by a special firm in Japan, making it sound as if this is some super special material developed by this expert firm, when in fact, I suspect, the “special paper” they refer to has less to do with modern technology, and a lot more to do with Japanese craft tradition. Kôzo paper, made not from typical trees as typical paper is, but from a plant known as the “paper mulberry,” or kôzo, has been used in Japan since at least the 17th century, and was quite standard for Edo period prints and books. While I think it might be more absorbent in terms of not repelling the natural oils and sweat from your fingertips, it’s more flexible than today’s white printer paper, less crisp, meaning it doesn’t get creased or crinkled as badly, and it doesn’t tear as easily. Based on my admittedly limited experience visiting two paper conservation labs on opposite sides of the United States, I gather that even outside of conservation labs specializing in Asian materials (e.g. Japanese woodblock prints), the use of kôzo, or other types of traditional Japanese paper (washi 和紙, lit. “Japanese paper”), is really quite standard. So I find it amusing the rather vague way it’s referred to in this article.

What’s not so standard, on the other hand, is the use of “a special ultra-thin plastic film developed in Rome” to affix the Japanese paper. I guess it makes sense, as the right kind of plastic film would be acid-free, totally non-reactive (i.e. so it won’t chemically damage the paper as it ages), and, depending on what they’re actually doing here (the article isn’t clear), if they’re not using any liquid adhesive at all, then even more easily reversible than most techniques. The art & science of museum conservation today stands strongly on the use of reversible techniques, so that conservators in the future, with more advanced insights into material sciences and better conservation technology can undo what we do today, and re-conserve things in a better way. So much damage has been done over the years to artworks by conservators or restorers who, in doing what was cutting-edge at the time, were doing something today seen as destructive or otherwise outdated and not a good idea. Anyway, it’s just interesting that they use some kind of plastic film when the conservators I have spoken to use wheat paste, traditional Japanese methods, or other types of adhesives – generally leaning towards the organic/natural and traditional – to conserve objects. I’m not going to say that one method makes more sense than the other – what do I know, I’m not a materials scientist nor a conservator – but, it’s interesting to learn about a rather different approach.

(1) Totally incidentally, I recently learned that the word “masterpiece” actually originates from the late medieval guild system, in which the piece one produced in order to graduate from journeyman to “master” was called one’s “masterpiece.” I guess the term is still used sometimes today, when we talk about an artist’s personal growth and development, and how after many years, he produced such-and-such work, his “masterpiece.” But, most of the time, we use this term not to refer to a work in terms of where it fits in an artist’s development, and certainly not in terms of any practical, mundane aspect of guild certification, though I guess we do still have the “Master’s” of Fine Arts, and one’s Master’s Thesis piece, which linguistically doesn’t sound all that far removed from “masterpiece.” Hmm… But still, we do generally use the term “masterpiece” to refer to anything and everything of a certain caliber, regardless of where it fits in a narrative of the artist’s development, right? Interesting, no?, the evolution of terms.

-“Butterfly Stool” designed by Yanagi Sôri, photo by Flickr user Tomislav Medak. Thanks for licensing your photo Creative Commons.
-Self-Portrait age 23, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1629. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston MA). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
-A Smithsonian paper conservator working on pages from the Jefferson Bible, 17 November 2011. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The collection of Bible excerpts compiled by Thomas Jefferson himself, painstakingly restored/conserved, is on display now at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC, until May 28 2012.

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