PRINCETON, New Jersey — On a November day in 1976 the novelist Italo Calvino visited Kyoto. Sent to Japan on assignment by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Calvino wrote nine travel pieces, describing everything from ancient imperial villas and Zen temples to Tokyo’s subculture of pinball arcades (Pachinko), electrical trains, Kimono-clad women, and the “savage ferocity” of Japanese erotic prints.
In his essay “Thousand Gardens” Calvino observes that in the traditional strolling gardens of Kyoto, “inner harmony is reached by following the path step by step and reviewing each image that your sight perceives.” Walking creates a way of seeing; each arranged view of the garden depends on one’s footsteps. Because no single perspective takes precedence, “the garden multiples into endless gardens.”
I thought of Calvino’s travelogues while visiting the Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibition Picturing Place in Japan. Examining representations of place in Japanese visual culture from the 16th century to the present, the curators condense almost half a millennium of Japan’s artistic practice into a few small rooms. The compression is pulled off remarkably well through the show’s division into three sections: Imagined Places, Famous Places, and Sacred Places.
Imagined Places presents the works of Japanese artists who relied on earlier Chinese landscape conventions and the mind’s eye to create idealized bucolic scenes of distant mountains, wind-swept pines, and still water. The section’s centerpiece is Tani Bunchō’s “Mountains and Water” (1828) an extraordinary panorama of brushed ink on gold leaf extending over two six-fold screens.
Like Calvino’s strolling gardens, Bunchō’s landscape is a paean to multiplicity. His washes of ink fashion light-toned sloping hills, shores and gnarled trees, boatmen, and distant lagoons. The serene view of gold sky and gold water shifts as you move between the panels. Come close and it’s a proto-cinematic experience: on the third panel, a boatman ferries a white-robed scholar across the harbor; a sailboat appears in the distance on the sixth one — but by this point the boatmen are gone. The following panels in the sequence immersed me in conifers and foliage lining the darkly inked slopes, causing me to forget the two boats in the earlier views. As in the gardens described by Calvino, here too, “at each step one’s gaze meets a different perspective, a different harmony.” My position, together with the angles of the panels, which can contract or expand the scene, rendered different waterscapes — if only to prove that each moment hides its own infinity.
I was struck by this section’s hanging scrolls, especially those by Ike No Taiga (1723–1776) and Tachihara Kyōsho (1785–1840) from the Edo period (1615–1868). Like Bunchō’s, Taiga’s brushwork ushers the viewer into inked landscapes of the mind: invented scenes unfolding in ancient China but inflected in a uniquely Japanese way. Taiga’s narrow vertical scroll “West Lake” depicts this landmark with lines of ink zigzagging over empty spaces to establish vegetation, huts, temples, and a road snaking up the mountainside. Except for a faint green wash over the trees and a red seal, it’s mostly a monochromatic world — ranging from dark black to light brown — that relies on distance for its mood of tranquility and contemplation.
Kyōsho’s square scroll “Painting” (1806) depicts a seated artist painting a landscape on a sliding screen. He has already inked the mountains and is now completing a tree trunk. Next to him lies an ink bowl. The painter sits facing the screen like a monk meditating before a wall. In keeping with the Zen Buddhist paradox that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” the placid order is an assembly of inked and empty areas, with nothingness predominating.
An atmosphere of detachment reigns over most of the exhibition’s imagined places. There are no close ups: the people — a fisherman, a monk, or a hunched villager — are tiny figures dwarfed by the vastness of a landscape, signifying a worldview far from the passions and agonies of Europe’s Old Masters. The perspectives are mostly aerial. (Western linear perspective would begin to influence Japanese artists only in the 19th century.) Not anchored to a specific focal point, the paintings seem to germinate from wherever you examine them. Every detail is equally alive, near or far: rocky peaks, rural laborers, mist.
The Famous Places section displays images that commemorate Japan’s renown sights, such as Mt. Fuji, Edo (present-day Tokyo), and the Tōkaidō road traveled by the poet Bashō. Katsushika Hokusai’s famous woodblock prints from his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1831-33) and Wondrous Views of Famous Bridges in Various Provinces (1834) are among the exhibited works. But what really caught my eye was Yamaguchi Shidō’s scroll “Mount Fuji of Poems” (1842). His iconic mountain is braided out of hair-thin horizontal strands of calligraphy with traditional Japanese verse. Poetry shapes the topography, which in turn inspires the poems. Woven from words, Shidō’s mountain can be seen or read.
Picturing Place ends with a coda of contemporary photographs documenting the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami disaster of March 11, 2011. Testifying to nature’s immense powers of destruction, the pictures of Japan’s devastated towns awaken the viewer from the dreamy traditional iconography of the Far East. Next to the ancient mandalas of Bodhisattvas, they frame nature as a wrathful deity who can instantly turn place into debris. But the jolt of the photographs felt too abrupt for this modest-sized show, and I found myself returning to Imagined Places to linger among Bunchō’s and Taiga’s landscapes.
Picturing Place in Japan continues at Princeton University Museum of Art (Elm Drive, Princeton, New Jersey) through February 24. The exhibition was curated by Andrew M. Watsky, Professor of Japanese Art and Archaeology, and Caitlin Karyadi, PhD candidate, Department of Art and Archaeology, with Cary Y. Liu, Nancy and Peter Lee Curator of Asian Art.