and I have tried to keep them from falling.
[Ezra Pound, Canto XIII, The Cantos]
In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh, travels from Paris to the Provence and looks out of the wagon’s window to ‘to see if it was like Japan yet’, enthralled – as he was – by Japanese woodblock prints. It was their light that he sought, a light that he found in the crisp sky of Arles. The almond blossoms, gnarled trees and irises that dotted the French landscape reminded him of nature scenes painted in Kyoto. And in the locals, he saw resonances with the geishas and Kabuki actors of a country that he worshiped and in which he attempted to feel at home, despite never having visited it.
Van Gogh began experimenting with aspects of the Japanese prints in his own paintings. The flattening effect of the light would wash out detail and simplify forms by strengthening the outlines of compositions and reducing nuances of colour to a few vivid contrasts. He would isolate and enlarge objects in the foreground, on an empty middle ground, while he would attempt diagonal lines, rather than horizontal perspective planes, excluding the horizon and cropping abruptly elements at the edge of his paintings.
The identification with Japanese artists was utterly sincere, yet doomed. When one stands in the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in front of Kameido’s ‘The residence with Plum Trees’ and van Gogh’s attempt on it, named ‘Flowering Plum Orchard’, the slavish duplication of the imagery goes almost unnoticed, due to the diametrically different ambiences of the two paintings. Every impulse of van Gogh’s swirling brushwork adds something of his own, transforming the smooth, dark silhouette of Kameido’s trees into a raw cloud whose every touch looks hard won. The graded shading is abandoned, black and grey are forgotten and instead, van Gogh’s painting is infused with a ‘passion and youthfulness’.
Kameido, ‘The residence with Plum Trees’ (亀戸梅屋舗) – published in 1857 as the thirtieth print in the ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’series and depicts apricot trees in bloom
Vincent van Gogh, ‘Flowering Plum Orchard’
Perhaps he has realized it himself, as his eyes in the ‘Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear’ (1889) are not the eyes of a ‘simple worshipper of the eternal Buddha’, as van Gogh describes himself; the eyes show no trace of the tranquility reflected on the print of Mount Fuji by Sato Torakiyo, hung on the wall behind him. After all, the tradition of Pieter Bruegel the Elder along with the entire Dutch Golden Age, hosted in the Rijksmuseum next door are hard to forget. Or perhaps he himself was prepared, yet Japanese aesthetics cannot just be mimicked. When van Gogh set out for the Arnes, seeking the light, it might not have been the Japanese light he was looking for. For light – of these woodprints that so much moved him – in its intensity is more of a shadow; as dim light creates a more enigmatic ambiance, so does strong light when it washes off the detail of a complex composition.
This might sound strange given that shadows have been so much praised as the loci of Japanese aesthetics. The walls of the zashiki, the Japanese tatami rooms, are deliberately made from soil and sand, in order to let the frail, melancholic, ephemeral light saturate the solemn composure of their earthy tones. And lacquerware on those walls shall be observed in the dimness of half-light, as the shadows lurk in lintels and in alcoves, sensitive to minute details. Young women, similar to the female puppets, bunraku, passing by the corridors of such houses would have their lips painted in iridescent reds and greens, teeth blackened, their visages transfixing in the gloom, barely seen amidst the darkness.
But I think it was not shadows per se that held an intrinsic value for the Japanese; rather anything that could trigger this element of suggestion, cultivating a view of beauty that accentuates ambiguity, mystery, and alludes to an indefinite depth of continuity. A view of beauty that strays from certainty and it depends on a willingness to admit that meanings exist beyond what can be seen or described. In Noh theatre, actors would perform in bright stages, yet a sense of darkness would prevail as the slow raising of the actor’s hand corresponds not only to the act which he is performing but alludes to something behind mere representation, something as profound and remote as the viewer’s powers of reception will permit. The absence of light – where light is interchangeable with something intelligible, clear and definite rather with something just luminous – heightens the perception of what little exists, as one seeks out what lies beyond form and pattern and to find the beauty in the inexplicit. Beauty might be a mere trick of light, but it feels solemn, fragile and otherworldly.
Being used of having no neutral ground, where every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan, to put it in the words of C.S. Lewis, darkness has always been seen as siding with the latter. At least since Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we have seen shadows as a metaphor for the illusory and wicked aspects of life, for that which we must eradicate in order to illuminate the truth and inherent goodness of existence. And yet we forget that the darkness they cast evidences the light – palpable proof without which we might not appreciate or even notice the radiance itself. The ‘light and darkness’ binary opposition might be an old one, so old that Claude Lévi-Strauss considered it part of his deep-lying pattern to which all myths ever written can be reduced. The reconciliation might be awkward, similar to the awkwardness upon the introduction of a Westerner to a Japanese. As the Westerners may try to adopt the custom of bowing while the Japanese may feel that a hand-shake is called for. The attempt to straddle two culture at once becomes a clumsy wavering between uncertainties. But the wavering, the effort of dialogue, albeit clumsy or awkward, is still preferable than two parallel monologues.