Fourth article - Light and Shadow in Japanese Arts

  • Uniquely Japanese
  • The Light and Shadow
Jul 26, 2019
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“Light” and “shadow,” which breathe life into Grand Seiko, are the founding stones of the Japanese sense of aesthetics. Opposite yet reliant on each other to exist, how do Japanese people look upon them, and how have they elevated them to the status of beauty? This column will try to elucidate this sense of aesthetics toward “light” and “shadow,” which have taken root in Japan, through the words of experts in various fields.

First, I would ask you to look at “Ryujin I” and “Ryujin II,” two of my works that were exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2015. These are paintings of a waterfall made using fluorescent paint in which the fall itself looks white in well-lit spaces, but if the paintings are lit with a blacklight in dark spaces, the waterfall takes on a pale, bluish-white glow. So, depending on the environment, the fall can appear as light or shadow. I think these are pieces of art that let the viewer enjoy the interesting aspect of treating light and shadow equally.

Falling Colors 2016 Yakushiji special exhibition    Photo: Nacasa & Partners Inc.

Then, in 2016, my artwork, “Falling Color” was displayed at a special exhibition held in the Toindo (East Hall) of Yakushiji temple in Nara. The contrast between the shadow expressed by the jet-black ink used and the light of numerous colors wove a dramatic story. You could say that this sense of treating light and shadow equally like this is an aesthetic that has survived in Japanese arts from ancient times.

In Western art, there are many artists—such as Rembrandt, Goya, Velázquez, Rubens, among others—who made free use of light and shadow to create grand dramatic scenes. However, many of their works have light as the main subject. In other words, light is the main actor, while shadow exists as a supporting role.

On the other hand, in Japanese art, a painting is not dominated by either light or shadow; both are treated equally, and we have come to discover over time the beauty of this contrast. As such, shadow is not there as a supporting role. Expressing in an intense fashion the chromatic contrast between light and its neighbor shadow allows us to create scenes with an interesting design, scenes in which shadow plays the main role. In this way, our complex human feelings and our view of life can be entrusted to express notions as deep as the Japanese takes on philosophy or religion. I think this is the true nature of Japanese art.

Taikan Yokoyama Metempsychosis,1923 The National Museum of Modern Art,Tokyo Photo: MOMAT/DNPartcom

For example, take "Metempsychosis" (1923) by Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), dating back almost 100 years ago. The single cloud includes both very bright and very dark sections, just like the sea does. In other words, light and darkness are treated equally, and the appeal of each is expressed. Secrets of the universe are glimpses that can be caught in these dramatic scenes of interwoven light and shadow.

Ogata Kōrin Red and White Plum Blossoms, 18th century

If you go back further, one of the masterpieces of Japanese art, “Red and White Plum Blossom” (18th century) by Kōrin Ogata (1658-1716), takes this sense of drama between interwoven light and shadow to yet another level. It is said that the pitch-black water-flow section in the center was originally decorated with silver foil. For a long time in Japanese art, gold has been used to express day; while silver, reminiscent of moonlight, has been used to express night. In order to bring just a little light all the way to the back of dark interiors in an era when there were almost no lighting devices, Japanese people used gold- or silver-painted fusuma (sliding panels) or folding screens to reflect light into deep indoor spaces. Therefore, it was not only black but also brightly shining silver that was used to express darkness. The silver probably fluttered in the candlelight.

In his “Red and White Plum Blossom,” Kōrin expresses the flow of time through the use of gold, silver, and gold again to represent day, night, and day again. Moreover, the silver—darkened with the passage of time—has come to also express the world of shadow on the soul. Kōrin must have been in no doubt that the silver would darken in this way. Elegant plum trees are painted in the center of the gold light on the left and right sides of the painting, but what is in the dark section in the middle is indescribable with words: the complex inner nature and sordid, uncontainable instincts of mankind. This darkness is at the center of the painting and, with time, the depth of the pitch-dark will grow and display a different expression. I think that creating this clever device is proof of the greatness of Kōrin.