Monday, February 27, 2012

Hasegawa Tohaku's "Pine Trees"

Hasegawa Tohaku's (1539-1610) screen painting "Pine Trees" is one of Japan's most celebrated art works. It consist of a pair of six-fold screens, i.e., two six-piece paintings symmetrically positioned side by side, painted with powerful, dynamic brush stroke. In this work, we can find highly diverse yet always effective applications of white and emptiness.

First, the pine grove is constructed using a rough, even harsh brush technique, a manner of representing the real world that makes the trees seem more "real." This monotone painting gives the impression that the pine trees are depicted in much greater detail than is actually the case

"Pine Trees" inherited the legacy of the Southern Sung ink painting tradition, the quintessence of Chinese fine art. Chinese ink painting reached its peak during the Sung period, an achievement that can be compared to that of the European Renaissance. We can classify Sung painting into two styles, the Northern Sung and the Southern Sung. Unlike the detailed description of nature found in Northern Sung painting, the Southern Sung style delineates the bounflessness of empty space by blending the "subtle" and the "faint" while avoiding portraying structural forms in any detail. The technique of using emptiness to set the image free on pper was the crowning achievement of Southern Sung paintings. Not surprisingly, Tohaku's paintingbears some similarity to that of the Southern Sung painter Mokkei (Muqi, 1210-1269). Tohaku's provocative demonstration of empty space and emptiness is crystallized in "Pine Trees." It conveys the lively image of the trees by intentionally avoiding detailed description, an approach that activates the imaginations of its viewers. In short, the painting's very roughness and omission of details awaken our senses.

Haboku is oneof the ink painting techniques connected to this swift and harsh movement of the brush. Haboku is meant to enable viewers to imagine the landscape within an ever-changing nature; in short, it aims to help them expand their imaginations. Tohaku's screen painting is a prime example of how such images are constructed.

Secone, Tohaku's "Pine Trees" seems to emphasize the empty space between the trees rather the trees themselves. Perhaps we should say that the painstaking execution of the misty atmosphere is the main theme of the painting rather than the tree themselves. The pine look indistinct, being fused into the depth of whiteness. Far from signifying a state of nonbeing, the white empty space suggests the countless trees that stand behind the painted surface. The exquisitely dense atmosphere is filled with a subtle movement that leaves viewers' senses drifting in that space. Indeed, the painting's most important feature is the way its mists evoke the boundless, floating world of the imagination.

A sacred mountain is painted in white on the screen to the left, taking up two sections on its upper righ-hand portion; the feeling of distance is created by the use of the whitest white. It is left as empty space on the painted surface; yet it could also be said that the mountain is hidden behind the white mist. Here, the surrounding scenery, from the nearest to the most distant view, lies buried in the hazy ground. Despite its vagueness, our sense are drawn into that white space, where they are left to sway back and forth.

Japanese people have a high regard for this paradoxical expression of empty space in pictorial art and it has helped them develop an imaginative capability that moves far beyond natural descriptive detail. Tohaku's "Pine Trees" is one of the prototypes that shape and convey this aesthetic taste. As the Edo-period manual The Collection of Painting Techniques puts it, "When construed as part of a larger pattern, even white paper can be satisfying." In other words, an unpainted space should not be seen as an information-free area: the foundation of Japanese aesthetic lies in that empty space and a host of meanings have been built upon it. An important level of communication thus exists within the dimension we call "white."

by Kenya Hara

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