An Abstract Glimpse of Japanese Art

The project Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art focuses mainly on Christian art produced in western Europe during the Middle Ages. In this context, the concept of “abstraction” is put in perspective with Christian theology and with the elaboration of a theory of images. Comparisons are always risky when dealing with complex notions like abstraction, deeply rooted in specific cultural contexts, but they can also be very fruitful when highlighting the broad questions at stake in the survey about Pre-Modern abstraction. Vrinda Agrawal, Bailey Sullivan, and Julia LaPlaca (University of Michigan) offer here a glimpse of these questions for three Japanese works of art from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

“Both Boy and Ox Forgotten” from Ten Verses on Oxherding. 1278; Kamakura period (1185–1333). Handscroll; ink and color on paper. Dimensions: Image: 12 1/4 in. × 20 ft. 6 in. (31.1 × 624.8 cm) . New York, MET, 2015.300.10, Mary Griggs Burke Collection.

The Buddha’s enlightenment is represented as a miraculous event throughout Asia. In paintings and architectural reliefs, fantastical creatures appear around Śākyamunī and the heavens shower flowers upon the newly Enlightened One. In Japan’s Zen Buddhism, however, enlightenment or awakening was often rooted in the familiar, observable world. Satori 悟, a Japanese for “liberating insight”, can be achieved through a practiced awareness that develops over time, but it was also imagined as a sudden realization triggered by a mundane occurrence.

In the Kamakura period (1185–1333) artists of the Zen tradition favored representations that were grounded in the real and ordinary, instead of idealized other-worldly realms. The parable of ox herding is a well-known example of this. In it, the elusive ox is the zoomorphic expression of satori while the herder boy is the seeker. Over ten steps, described in poems and depicted in accompanying illustrations, he searches, captures, and finally brings the ox home. After the boy’s struggle and the ox’s resistance, they harmoniously come together in absolute unity, which we see in this illustration, the eighth of ten. The empty circle, depicting here the “true void” (shinkū), is particularly surprising when viewed alongside the other nine meticulously drawn and colored images. Its placement within an otherwise “representational” visual program not only heightens the level of abstraction but also demonstrates an astute artistic understanding of the power of placing an absence within the pronounced presence of figural imagery. It also forces the viewer to pause and contemplate the serenity that comes from first forgetting the ox (in illustration 7), and then forgetting oneself.

The deliberate emptiness of the circle embodies the underlying concept of mu – the nothingness or “not-being” of pure awareness achieved by the herder boy. Furthermore, the circular format was preferred because it is without opposing angles and does not have a discernible beginning or end. In fact, Zen monks would often paint stand-alone ensō circles as a performance of the enlightened self. The next circle, the ninth stage, contains symbols of natural beauty and perfection, but neither boy nor ox appears here. The seeker has detached himself from such ephemeral stimulations and sensory desires. Having realized his true self, he does not need escape to another world. The many illustrated versions of this parable, in many media, suggest that it was a widely viewed and understood set of images. Was the void, then, considered an abstraction or did it become a recognizable symbol, “read” in the same way as the other representations? Or does the empty circle ask the viewer to engage with it more, go deeper, than the other nine illustrated circles?

– Vrinda Agrawal (University of Michigan)

Sesshu Toyo 雪舟等楊. Haboku, Splashed Ink Landscape. 1400s–early 1500s (Muromachi period, 1392–1573). Hanging scroll; ink on paper, 28 5/16 x 10 ½ in (71.9 x 26.7 cm) (painting only). Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. Gift of the Norweb Foundation. Inv. no. 1955.43

Haboku, Splashed Ink Landscape (Haboku sansui-zu 破墨山水図), attributed to Zen Buddhist monk Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟等楊, 1420–1506?) and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, presents a waterside vista that emerges before the viewer’s eyes. Painted on a vertical hanging scroll, this late-fifteenth-century landscape oscillates between the non-representational and the representational. On the right side of the scroll, a pyramidal form suggesting a rooftop peaks out from behind two amorphous ink washes, while to its right a cliff recedes into the landscape. On the lower left side of the scroll is the signature of the artist.The landscape itself occupies only the bottom third of the painting, and the artist leaves the upper portions of the scroll empty. The viewer, then, must intuitively fill in the details of the riverside scene and imagine the vast space the sparse marks imply. In this way, the representational mode of this landscape is not necessarily abstract, but abstracted—withdrawn from the perspectival particularities of embodied physical sight.

Sesshūlikely first encountered “splashed ink” (破墨, Japanese: haboku, Chinese: pomo, lit. “broken ink”) painting on a trip through China. Probably one of the first Japanese Zen monks to paint using the haboku technique, Sesshū was also acclaimed for his work in “modal painting,” a practice of art-making in Japan that adopts, digests, and transforms the styles of Chinese art into a novel Japanese visual tradition. Some art historians have interpreted the seemingly spontaneous stylistic properties of this painting as representing the artist’s engagements with Zen Buddhism and its core values of enlightened spontaneity. However, it is equally likely that Sesshū’s practice in Chinese painting techniques gestures towards his self-created artistic identity, one that borrows from and builds on well-established image-making practices on the continent.  This work raises many questions about abstraction in medieval Japan. Can landscapes be “abstract” representations of space? If so, in what way? How does empty space play into the idea of abstraction in this painting? How would this image change if the upper half were filled with text?

– Bailey Sullivan (University of Michigan)

Hotei, mid-1500s. Yamada Dōan (Japanese, d. 1571), inscribed by Tōkei Jakurin (Japanese, dates unknown). Hanging scroll; ink on paper; overall: 85.7 x 35.3 cm (33 3/4 x 13 7/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1978.48

At first glance, there is nothing particularly abstract about this art work. The portly Hotei (or “Bùdài,” in Chinese, d. c. 916), a semi-mythologized Chinese Buddhist monk, extends his arm upward, pointing with an outstretched index finger. His figure is rendered in faint ink, but a close look reveals his beaming grin and twinkling eyes. Hotei cranes his neck toward his finger, encouraging the viewer to follow his gesture and gaze. But what do we see? A five-line inscription fills the top of the scroll. Perhaps he wants the viewer to ponder the inscription. However, the inscription itself negates this possibility:

Big stomach, gaping garment,

Treasures gathered deep in the bottom of his bag,

Passing through the sky is another road,

Do not seek that to which his fingertip points. (CMA website)

The big stomach and garments belong to Hotei. The “treasures” lie in his signature round sack that rests on his left side. But then the inscription becomes more mysterious. Where is the road in the sky? Why shouldn’t we seek what may be on this road? Whether we begin with text or image, we find ourselves in the empty space at the tip of Hotei’s finger.

This work illustrates a central tenet of Zen Buddhism—enlightenment is not something that can be achieved but is rather something inherent that is realized. Each of us already has a “buddha nature.” This is different from previous Buddhist practices that encouraged demanding spiritual practices in order to reach enlightenment. By pointing to the empty space, Hotei indicates that the road to enlightenment cannot be gained through conscious efforts that are perhaps represented by the written words. Instead, Hotei focused on present, physical phenomena, instead of trying to detach from the world.

Hotei is most well-known for his “treasures,” that are sometimes interpreted as the “treasure of consciousness” or the important realization of his enlightenment. This is why Hotei smiles contentedly, and why he appears to be disappearing before our eyes. This image may be an “apparition painting” (moryōga) in which foundational Zen figures seem shadowy and ethereal, as a way to signify their spiritual state between the mundane world and the transcendent reality of enlightenment. Can we interpret the empty space above Hotei’s figure as abstract? How might the pale figure, bold inscription, and space between work together to help viewers realize their own enlightened state, as described in Japanese Zen?

– Julia LaPlaca (University of Michigan)

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