From Edo to Rothko
Text by Barbara Safran de Niverville

It is easy to be charmed by the arabesque lines, graceful color and stylized details in traditional Japanese art. The Edo period, particularly, produced opulent, yet simplified, images of “nature” on screens, scrolls and prints such as Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges) by Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716) or Flowering Plants and Vegetables of the Four Seasons (early 18th century). The depiction of plants and birds rivals the finest drawings in Europe of the same period (1615 – 1868).

Much has been written about the opening up of Japan to trade with the West in 1854 following a 200-year period of seclusion. European artists looking for ways to break with European academic tradition adopted “expressive line, abstract graphic style, decorative colors and dramatic asymmetrical compositions” as a response to ukiyo-i woodblock prints and Japanese applied arts. This enthusiasm also coincided with a fascination for decorative styles. From the early 1860s, Japonisme could be found in nearly all media across a variety of stylistic movements. (Floyd) Jean-Pierre Lehman summarizes that Japonisme “was born from the Edo era and was concentrated on the world of the senses: Japan was extolled as a land of ascetic superiority and sensual sensitivity.” (758)

An impressive number of western artists fell under the spell of Japanese prints and artifacts, including James McNeill Whistler, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh. (Floyd) However, this enthusiasm was not without its problematic aspects.

Images, and the attitudes and stereotypes which they give rise to, tend to be formed at an early stage of encounter between two societies; in other words initial impressions have a strong power of preservation. Following from this, it is clear that images rarely keep pace with reality. (Lehman 757)

European artists tended to introduce external, stylistic elements of Japanese arts into their own work. For instance, James McNeill Whistler believed that borrowing Japanese motifs liberated his art from the narrative and moralistic demands of Victorian painting. Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864) is a portrait of Joanna Hiffernan costumed in a sumptuous kimono, examining prints by Hiroshige. She is seated on the floor in front of a golden Japanese screen. The composition tilts slightly, as if Whistler is viewing the scene from above. Diagonals of the carpet add visual movement to an otherwise static arrangement, but the painting remains an occidental view of exotic artifacts. Another more well known painting from the same series, La Princesses du pays de la porcelaine 1863-65, hangs in the famed Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The model, Christina Spartalli, poses as one of the elongated figures typical of Chinese porcelain and Japanese ukiyo-I prints. (Freer/Sackler) Whistler succeeded in integrating Japanese elements in more minimalist compositions in his series of Nocturnes. Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge 1872-5 seems reminiscent of Hiroshige’s prints of bridges in his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series, while it stands as a signature piece of Whistler’s work.

Claude Monet also posed a model in an ornate kimono, his wife Camille, in the painting
La Japonaise of 1876. Holding a fan, she wears a blond wig, as if to point out her European origins. Looking back in 1918, Monet called it a “fantasy.” He related that he had exhibited the dark The Woman in Green at the Salon of 1866 with success and it was suggested that he try to repeat it. He was shown the gold-embroidered robe, which became the focus of the light-hearted and airy painting La Japonaise. (Gimpel qtd. in Stuckey)

In 1906, Kakuzo Okarura’s
The Book of Tea was published in an effort to explain Japanese traditions to the West. At the time, Okakura was known as a scholar, art critic and curator of Chinese and Japanese Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In this essay, Okakura explained the “peculiar orientality of the Orient and used tea as his symbol.” (Bleiler qtd. in Okakura iii:xv)

Teaism ia a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful
among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates
purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the
romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of
the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish
something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.
(Okakura 1)

The contrasting of the opulent or the perfect with the impoverished or imperfect facilitates the appreciation of each. This Japanese notion of
wabi, is a

. . . quintessentially Japanese taste. . . . One of the hallmarks of the traditional Japanese design principle is harmony brought about by juxtaposing disparate, often contrasting, elements. The unity of the whole is designed to emerge spontaneously from the contribution of each element… (Saito 377 - 379)

Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942) is often regarded as the father of modern Japanese design. His three woodblock-printed books
A Thousand Grasses (Chigusa) produced between 1899 and 1900, are stunning samples of restraint, elegance and simplicity. They seem to form a bridge between Japanese tradition and Western modernism.

Another key period in the exchange between East and West occurred mid-century in the 1940’s - 50’s. The avant-garde “beat generation” in New York and San Francisco developed an intense interest in the Buddhist religion as an antidote for the paranoia and conformity of American society at that time. Resembling the earlier theosophists, some Beats were convinced that eastern religion expressed an ancient wisdom required for balancing the excesses of western technological society. They envisioned a universal human community undivided, without obstacles imposed by ethnic origin or creed. The Beat poets “introduced Buddhism to Americans in a refreshing way.” (Chandler 312-13, 316)

The origins of the word 'beat' are obscure . . . More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. (Holmes)

Of the same era, Mark Rothko’s paintings have been described by many commentators as representations of “nothingness.” The common characteristics of these writings is that Rothko’s paintings, because of the reduction of figure, line, space and color, are on the verge of nothing. Natalie Kosoi maintains that Rothko’s “nothingness” is reminiscent of Heidegger’s “slipping away of the whole. . . . It is a state in which we touch the deepest core of ourselves.” (27)

The enveloping effect of Rothko’s colored rectangles also recalls the oneness sought by practitioners of Zen Buddhism, who through meditation, seek to empty the mind and discover the center of their being. Shunryu Suzuki, an influential Zen teacher in America, taught that “it is necessary to believe in nothing.” This “nothing” has nor form or color, it exists before all forms and colors appear. Something appears from nothing in a phenomenal existence. (144)

However, in 1943, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gotlieb declared in the New York Times, “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” (Gotlieb, Rothko and Newman) Perhaps these statements are indicative of the artist’s intention differing from the interpretations of his viewers. By 1949, Rothko had developed his “classic style” of floating rectangles, which have become “synonymous with his style” (Wilkin 28) and perhaps with “nothingness,” in spite of his comments to the contrary.

Rothko’s paintings intrigue me with their ambiguous manipulation of figure- ground relationships and their apparent simplicity of concept. The subtle colors amplify the sensation of being engulfed in a primal void. Earlier works such as
No. 13, (White, Red on Yellow) 1958 seem to glow in a happier state than the dark canvases of the late 1960’s such as Untitled 1967 and Untitled (White, Black, Rust or Brown) 1968. The close tonality of these later works creates an atmosphere of mystery and deepness.

Despite their apparent simplicity, Rothko’s paintings achieved a richness of color through hundreds of meticulously layered sheets of paint. He mixed his own paints, often with unusual materials. (Waters) Karen Wilkin notes that Rothko deliberately confused the conventional reading of pictorial space, creating ambiguity between distant and near forms, between depth and flatness. His paintings also blur differences between boundaries and colors, at times disappearing into dark monochromes. (28) This ambiguity approaches the Zen notion of oneness, of letting go of the duality of Western thinking. (Suzuki 2, 7) Although this concept can be read into Rothko’s work, he was known to be more influenced by the nihilist writings of Nietzsche. (Lequeux 122 and Nehamas)

As an artist, I can appreciate the splendor of Edo-period works like
Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges) as well as the restraint and elegance of rustic Japanese tea bowls and water vessels. What I admire in these works are the figure-ground relationships, simplified line drawing, asymmetry and simplicity in the use of natural, rough materials. The notion of wabi, finding beauty in the unfinished or the rough, becomes a way of simplifying the tangled and baroque subject of my garden. Asymmetrical figure-ground relationships help me to arrange pictorial elements as I develop a work. The contrast between the perfect and the imperfect, the worn and the new can create visual tension in a subject that could descend into hackneyed sentimentality without it. In a different way, Mark Rothko’s large canvases inspire me in awe and contemplation with their subtlety, drawing me into their depths.

Barbara Safran de Niverville *


1 Nature: that which is not directly produced by humans, and which acts independently of humanity. See Soper page 15.

2 On display in the “Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, May 26, 2012 –January 13, 2013.

3 Theosophy: the teachings of a modern movement originating in the US in 1875 and following chiefly Buddhist and Brahmanic theories especially of pantheistic evolution and reincarnation.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed.

4 Allan Ginsberg “stumbled upon Zen Buddhism in the New York Public Library in 1953.” He also found books on Chinese painting. In 1954, Jack Kerouac read various Buddhist and Hindu texts. (See Chandler 314) Beat poets frequented the same bar as Abstract Expressionist artists. (See Landau)

5 Nothingness: Non-existence, void, emptiness.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. In her essay “Nothingness Made Visible: The Case of Rothko’s Paintings,” Natalie Kosoi cites James E. B. Breslin, Barbara Novak and Brian O’ Doherty and Robert Rosenblum as examples.

I have quoted a small element from Suzuki’s seminal text, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. See the entire text for a better grasp of Zen concepts. Rothko’s paintings have also been related to “nothingness” as death. See Wilkin for a full discussion.

7 These dark canvases seem to foreshadow Rothko’s suicide in 1970.

8 Nihilism: A viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.

9 View Gallery 280, Arts of Japan, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

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* Please note that italics have been used for citations due to the limitations of the web design templates used on this site.