Non-Western Art


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Whose Sleeves?

One of the most intriguing genre within Japanese art is that of still-life paintings of sumptuous kimonos draped casually across lacquered racks and furnishings. These beautifully decorated silk robes intimately evoke their unknown wearer and inspire the viewer to ask, “Whose robes?“ The question, “Whose sleeves?” (Tagasode), comes from a classical poem in the Spring section of the tenth-century poetry anthology Collected Japanese Poems of Ancient and Modern Times (Kokin wakashû).

The fragrance seems even more alluring than the hue,
Whose sleeves have brushed past?
Or would it be this plum tree blossoming here at home?

This tradition continues throughout Japanese poetry and we find the great modern poetess, Akiko Yosano able to evoke much about the individual through her simple portrayal of hair or the sleeves of a kimono:

This kimono sleeve
Three feet in length
No purple thread has bound it yet-
Pull it
If you dare.

Without returning…..
O my feelings
In this gathering darkness of spring,
And against my koto…..
My tangled, tangled hair

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Screen paintings dating from the Momoyama (1573–1615) and Edo periods (1615–1868), utilized this theme as a romantic or even erotic allusion. There was an intention to suggest the personality or even the physical presence of individuals through their garments. “Suggest" may be the key word, as these images suggest the intimate/romantic/erotic liaisons in an oblique manner rather than through a more literal portrayal… such as that which we would find in the Japanese Ukiyo-e “Shunga” prints… which as opposed to the works of the Momoyama painters, were long seen as intended for a less sophisticated, “lowbrow” audience…

- Kitagawa Utamaro


-Katsukawa Shuncho

To be honest, these are two of the most sophisticated and reserved examples of Shuga.


The attention to the details and variety of textures was intended to further evoke the sense of touch, while images of fruit… plums and cherries… in the patterns suggest the sense of taste, and the short tables often included were commonly used for perfume ( to the left with clothing draped over it in the screen painting above ) further suggests the sense of smell. The artists have established a sensual/sensory environment in which the question “whose sleeves" might be seen as not far removed from the question once asked by The Three Bears… or the Rolling Stones: “Who's been sleeping here?“

The Rolling Stones: Who's Been Sleeping Here?

These paintings may allude to all this… or even remind the viewer of the manner in which Van Gogh can evoke his own presence through the image of such humble still-life objects as the artist’s shoes or his chair…


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These sensuous screen paintings with their focus upon dramatic flat design, pattern, and delicate color suggest nothing quite so much within the realm of Western Art as the intimate paintings of Bonnard, Vuillard, and even Matisse:




The portraying of kimonos in ukiyo-e prints was especially arduous, required special techniques and was assigned only to the most experienced block carvers (the same was true of women's hairlines, though special techniques weren't required only the most skillful carvers were permitted to do it).

It's amusing that every male portrayed in shunga prints appears to be hung like a donkey. A little wishful thinking, me thinks.
Koetsu and Sotatsu: The Deer Scroll

I thought I’d post a little on some of the Asian art I have long been enamored of in tandem with Asian… and especially Japanese literature/poetry. In the West since the era of the standardization of letterforms under Charlemagne (who couldn’t read), and the introduction of the movable type printing press by Gutenberg, calligraphy has lost its status as one of the central art-forms. Indeed, today it would be hard form me to think of a single known calligrapher... or when I last witnessed an exhibition of recent calligraphic art.

Certainly, since Charlemagne there have been book artists for whom the layout and the look of letters on the page have been imminently important; I think especially of designers such as Aldus Manutius, founder of the Aldine Press…



… or William Morris, especially famed for the Kelmscott Chaucer


But none of these equal the expressive quality of the written word… of calligraphy… as a visual form of communication as one might regularly find in Islamic manuscripts…


...or in the spontaneous calligraphy of Chen/Zen calligraphers in China and Japan…


... or even in medieval European books:


Perhaps the only major western artist/author to come close to a seamless merger of the written word as both a visual and literary art before the 20th century was William Blake…


As an artist/bibliophile… and ardent admirer of the book as an art object, it probably shouldn’t be so surprising that Blake is such a central figure to me.

Exploring Asian art and literature… and especially that of Japan… I have been greatly enamored of what must surely be one of the greatest creative partnerships in the history of art. The artists of whom I am speaking are the masters, Hon’ami Kōetsu (本阿弥光悦)-1558-1637 and Tawaraya Sōtatsu (俵屋宗達)-early 1600s. Kōetsu was born into a family of swordsmiths and mastered the craft himself. Like many aristocratic Japanese artists of the era (and not unlike the Renaissance artists) he was accomplished in a broad array of artistic forms, including ceramics, enamels, lacquer, and calligraphy. As a calligrapher, he was deeply inspired by the great poets of the Heian period (794 to 1185)… the so-called “classical era" or “golden age". Sōtatsu was primarily a painter and creator of beautiful papers for use in calligraphy. He is credited with having developed a “wet into wet" style of painting in which one color is dropped into another still wet color so that the two “bleed" together forming a marvelous atmospheric effect that is difficult to control and is deeply admired by the Japanese, who had a great respect for the spontaneous in art. Kōetsu and Sōtatsu worked together for some 15 years producing marvelous works of art in which the text, calligraphy, paper, and painting all merged to create a marvelous visual and literary work of art. There are suggestions that the close relationship of the two artists may have been so long-lasting due to their being related by marriage.

Kōetsu and Sōtatsu developed a form of visual art in which calligraphy was equal to painting… a concept not uncommon in Japanese, Chinese, and Islamic cultures. Both painting and the calligraphic forms served to illuminate the classical Heian poems. In this work…


… the artists illustrate a poem describing thunder in the pines. Bolder calligraphic characters… closer to Chinese in manner… suggest the explosion of sound that thunder makes, while other… more elegant and more characteristically Japanese-style symbols suggest the rain falling onto the pines below.

In other examples, the calligraphy and painting merge into a single entity to an even greater degree. Of course, the artists had the advantage of building upon a poetic tradition that was very image-based. Most of the classical Japanese poetry is very short and simply paints an exquisite and intensely imagined visual image:

In a gust of wind the white dew
On the autumn grass
Scatters like a broken necklace

-Bunya No Asayasu

In the spring garden
Where the peach blossoms
Light the path beneath,
A girl is walking.

(both tr. Kenneth Rexroth)

Kōetsu and Sōtatsu often created works in which the calligraphic form is almost an inseparable part of the visual image. Here, for example, illuminating a poem upon willow trees, the characters are lost within the foliage of the tree:


In another example, the calligraphy illustrates the water and water-lilies as much as the painted image:


The same can be said of this illumination of a poem upon bamboo:


Or that portraying a beach with pines and billowing clouds:


One of the most marvelous creations of the partnership of Kōetsu and Sōtatsu must be the so-called “Deer Scroll” in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum:

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The Deer Scroll illuminates 28 poems of autumn from the Shin Kokin Wakashū (新古今和歌集) or New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, an anthology compiled beginning in 905 and concluding c. 1439. The Seattle Art Museum owns but half of the entire scroll, or about 30 feet. The scroll was divided by a Japanese collector in the 1930s
and the remaining portions of the work are owned by 5 Japanese museums and several private collectors. There are also a few missing pieces.




A. Ramachandran

Achutan Ramachandran Nair, popularly known as A. Ramachandran, is an Indian painter born in 1935. In 1957, he obtained his master's degree in Malayalam literature, but art had remained a continuing interest since childhood. Initially, Ramachandran painted in an expressionist style that poignantly reflected the angst of urban life. By the 1980s however, Ramachandran's work underwent a major change. A tribal community in Rajasthan with its vibrant ethos gripped his imagination. Simultaneously, the colours and forms of the murals in the Kerala temples began to influence his mode of expression. Myths and legends became a great resource for him including a visual retelling of stories from the Indian epic Mahabharata.













Again, it should be obvious why I would be enthralled with these paintings with their wealth of pattern, floral design, saturated colors, and linear elements. Ramachandran's paintings strike me as building upon the painting traditions of India... including the ancient murals of the Ajanta Caves...

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... and paintings of the Mughal Empire:


These influences are then filtered through modern sensibilities... undoubtedly influenced by Western Modernist painting.
Kaori Someya:


Kaori Someya was born in 1977 in the western rural Shimane prefecture of Japan. She graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts in 1999. In 2001 she completed her master’s degree in Nihonga at the graduate school of Tokyo University of the Arts. Nihonga is a unique genre of Japanese painting. Nihonga is epitomized by the pursuit of an art that renders that which is beautiful, beautifully... an age-old reverence for nature... for all living things... and for the fragility of life.




Flowers and plants rank among the most important subjects in traditional Nihonga painting, and they are a major theme in Kaori Someya's paintings. At times, her floral works remind me of the early flower paintings of Piet Mondrian:


-Piet Mondrian

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-Piet Mondrian



The colors and the "weathered" surface of Kaori Someya's paintings of flowers and other plants also suggest traditional Japanese screen painting and even ancient Roman frescoes:


Kaori Someya:

Kaori Someya stands out among her peers of classical East Asian painters in her extensive research into traditional Japanese methods of creating harmony in art through the use of mineral pigments and other natural materials. She renders ultramarine blue and verdigris green by grinding rare minerals, brilliant white from ground oyster shells, earth tones from colour-rich soil, bright red and crimson from processed metals, deep purple tones from plants and small dried insects, and pure gold and silver leaf are delicately applied sheet by sheet.


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Portraits of beautiful women beautifully painted (in the Nihonga manner) are Kaori Someya's most common subjects. These women are painted usually isolated against little or no suggestion of background space and seen dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos. The floral designs and patterns reinforce the importance of nature in her art. Her color palette is delicate and sophisticated employing subtle shades of rose and peach, teal, plum, and green. These paintings recall the French Intimistes such as Bonnard...


-Pierre Bonnard

... but especially Vuillard:


-Edouard Vuillard
Kaori Someya:








Those paintings by Kaori Someya that employ a more complete figure often suggest another Western artist: Gustav Klimt. This shouldn't be surprising, considering Klimt's love of Japanese pattern and design.


-Gustav Klimt


-Gustav Klimt

Neither can I look at Kaori Someya's paintings without thinking of the work of her Japanese peer: Yasunari Ikenaga:


-Yasunari Ikenaga

Kaori Someya is a member of Japanese Art Institute and a research assistant at Tokyo University of the Arts.
Sorry, but the fine quality of her work aside, it's unlikely in the extreme that Kaori Someya grinds her own ultramarine. The process of making natural ultramarine is very laborious; it's part of the reason ultramarine was so expensive (and remains so to this day). You can't just take a few pieces of lapis lazuli, grind them up in a mortar and pestle and come up with ultramarine. Lapis is a rock, not a mineral, and you'll end up with a bluish grey due to the impurities. Verdigris isn't made by grinding at all and is fugitive. Any plant dyes she's using are also likely to be fugitive (as seen in many Edo prints... and btw, all those beautifully graded Hokusai and Hiroshige skies were only made possible by the introduction of Prussian blue to Japan). Ground oyster shells are the traditional Japanese white and are easily obtained commercially-- I have some myself, in a very nice box.

If I were still able to work, this would be for cutting into cabochons, not grinding into pigment.

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