By Neal Hovelmeier
Pair of two-panel folding screens; ink, colour, and gold on paper, 1825, by Suzuki Kiitsu (1796 – 1858)
These two stunning folding panels were part of the exhibition of art from the Japanese Edo Period which had opened at the Harvard Art Galleries a few weeks prior to being closed down by the outbreak of the pandemic. I previously wrote about a wonderful image of a peacock from the same exhibition. These panels measure almost two metres each in both width and height and when you happen across them in the exhibition space, you invariably find a cluster of people gathered in front of them, just staring entranced at their simple but radiant beauty. On both occasions I went to see the magnificent Edo exhibition, it was these elegant cranes who had somehow seemed to draw towards them a quiet and respectful audience. A certain silence falls over viewers in the presence of great art, just as it does when concert goers find themselves transported beyond the sound of music into something more divine, and in this state remain suspended, momentarily unaware even that the last cadence of the music has already been played, and so passed on into nothingness. The curators of the exhibition seemed to anticipate the effect this extraordinary work would have on viewers and so they placed it in a sort of darkened, quiet enclave where it was exquisitely lit by subtle spotlights, the light emblazoning the gold painted paper and making its avian subjects appear to hover off the screen and the water to shimmer and ripple behind them. I would imagine that to have the panels as a decorative partition in a bedroom or parlour would make for many a deeply meditative moment, not to mention a fine and envious conversation piece in the houses of the Edo aristocracy.
I know nothing of Japanese art, except perhaps to have briefly encountered the fine screen paintings which were often used as scrims and backdrops for their tradition of kabuki theatre. Reading extracts from the fine book which was written to commemorate the Edo exhibition was very informative and yet somehow the soul of Edo art seemed to remain elusive to me, as if it all lingered from within a fully sealed hermitic reality that was impossible to penetrate. This, as it turns out, is not entirely true because there is wide evidence to suggest that the artists of the Edo period were already beginning to immerse themselves in the traditions of the west as increasingly busy ports brought trade and commodities from Europe and other countries previously sealed off from Japanese culture.
But there is a genteel elegance to Edo figure-work which seems to come from another world, the “floating world” of fine fans and lit lanterns and magnificent miniaturist gardens: all components of a very high, stately and particular culture. Suzuki Kiitsu was a leading proponent of the Edo Rinpa school of craft art, descendants of a long line of a specific kind of art which was used to embellish a number of utilitarian items, such as fans, sliding doors, traditional tea bowls, pots and screens. Interestingly, however, when you read further, you learn that the tradition of screen painting, called Byōbu was not in fact Japanese at all, but appropriated from the Chinese Han dynasty many centuries earlier.
The curator of the Harvard Edo exhibition wrote an exquisite description of this piece which I copied into my notebook: The sublime simplicity of the supple necks and luxuriant feathers of this group of cranes is complemented by the tangle of angular legs at ground level. A patch of water bridges the gap between the two screens, compelling unification in the mind’s eye. As the birds call to and gaze at each other in the shallow pictorial space, their body language echoes the distinctive coiled ripples inked on the azurite water.
There is indeed an arresting juxtaposition between the simple and the complex in the work: the carefully evoked bodies of the cranes, lush in their fullness and curved lines, become strangely scrawny and discombobulated as their legs criss-cross one another and their raggedly claws provide a disjointed relief from their otherwise graceful posturing. In fact, the balance of the composition hangs in this precarious juncture between harmony and disharmony as we scan from top to bottom, but also from left screen to right screen. The groupings of the cranes are held in a kind of elusive tension with the water: it is barely perceptible but the flat contours of the water and their complete lack of dimensionality grate antithetically with the full-bodied outlines of the birds. In order to reach a satisfactory resolution, we first need to encounter disunity and crisis. We need to work mentally towards denouement and catharsis; the screens would hardly be arresting otherwise, quite probably the reason they draw viewers towards them and hold people’s gaze so intently. Consciously our mind is drawn to the oddness of these tiny discordant notes but always we are longing to resolve them towards a perfect cadence. It’s a total triumph of technique that Kiitsu seems to know the value of intriguing and testing the mind rather than handing us a scene which is already fully unified.
Art as object, as utility, is also raised in viewing Cranes. On display, the screens make up four compartments which slope away from one another at slight angles. The overall impression of the object comes to you not as a flat painting, therefore presentable and viewable, but as a pronounced object overtly servicing a larger function. The screen divides, it separates, it conceals. It makes one space into two spaces. It makes a larger space into a smaller space. It permits action to unfold behind it which is invisible from in front of it. It coalesces to intimacies which its absence would render indelicate. It does not demand attention within itself, but its beauty is rather attendant to its primary role as an arbiter of discretion. Also it is ambient rather than purely artistic; it adds taste to a room without being the centre of that taste. And yet, despite its purpose, the screens are utterly magnetic: they draw energy towards them in a way which almost seems to dislocate the intention of ambience altogether. It is no wonder now that they are prized exhibition pieces and used in a manner which specifically solicits undivided attention, but it interests me to contemplate what effect they had on ordinary visitors to a parlour room or incumbents of a bedroom. Does the artistry of an object supersede its functionalism when its aesthetic qualities mask the apparentness of that object’s purpose? Do people see a screen or a work of art?
Of course they can be one and the same thing, but placed in a larger context of Japanese culture, and then placed also in relation to a larger global historical period, one can’t help but feel a kind of sad longing for that bygone time when we seemed to value art so highly for its ability to neutralise the perfunctoriness of our everyday utility. The modern world seeks to popularise the mass productiveness of items: our Samsung TV is manufactured to look the same as the other ten million Samsung TV’s propped up as literal screens in ten million rooms. Somehow sameness and commonality has become a status symbol: we want what other people want. Yet I can imagine that whoever originally owned Cranes and used it for whatever purpose, prized it particularly for its uniqueness, its originality, its distinction. One can only wonder whether our fixation with the common mass object somehow means we eventually end up all thinking and acting in the same common way?
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.
Neal Hovelmeier is a Zimbabwean novelist, academic and educator. He is a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. He holds a PhD in the humanities from the University of the Witwatersrand. For more of his writing visit www.nealhovelmeier.com