The art of making visible the invisible

Visual arts are a practically infinite field of knowledge and artistic production. This expression refers in the most indeterminate (and imaginative) way to any kind of visible artistic creation with which the artist-creator literally gives life to something perceptible and tangible. From the inner dimension of the soul, thanks to the talent and brilliance of the artist, the artwork is born from his hands (or tools) and finds its place in reality. In the middle, between the "real being" of the work and its conception in the mind of the creator, there is a materially empty space. This existential (and not only material) "emptiness" has stimulated humanity from the beginning to find always different ways to express and make visible the invisible. Since cave paintings, men have literally had the need to communicate what they had inside; what perhaps not even the first archaic languages fully rendered. Men have poured everything into objects: the taste for aesthetics, the desire for freedom, the closeness to the divine, messages of struggle and in general all human knowledge. From the continuous search for more and more effective and engaging forms to vent the continuous artistic nuances of individuals or entire communities were born painting, ceramics, sculpture, theatre and much more. What does animate modern street art if not the same desire to convey a message that pushed ancient artists to sculpt and paint gods and kings, for example? Visual arts, widely understood, change shape and skin continuously; history, with its convulsions, imposes always different schools of thought and conceptual models. But the constant of "visible" art is always the same: to amaze, to make people think, to send a message, to make immortal what is feared to be mortal, to approach or imagine the unknown.

Obviously Japanese art does not need an introduction with its immense and fascinating artistic and cultural heritage about which anything has been written. But the unique appeal of this culture lies in its mixture of different knowledge that manages to combine in a wonderful way. Art, language, philosophy, religion and history in Japan are able to intertwine and separate themselves in an exquisitely harmonious movement. Like scattered and small tea leaves in the mirror of a boiling cup of water that get close and move away creating intense colours and inviting scents. All this while in the background a few raindrops mark the rhythm of nature. These are the sensations that pervade the soul of a true artist who imagines his finished work before even starting it. But in between, as mentioned, there is a void. In Japanese that space has a name: ma (間). The term indicates an interval, a void, a pause that separates two elements, like the artist-creator and his work in progress. This concept is linked to Mahāyāna Buddhism, where the "void" is a central element. In Japanese aesthetics a useful ideal to fill the artistic void is the concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ)[2]. Like most concepts in Japanese cultural tradition, it is almost impossible to translate it into another language and reduce it to something ready to use. In essence, one can subsume pathos, the emotional involvement in things. Japanese aesthetics concepts cannot be counted for quantity and quality and to mention others would risk misrepresenting their importance. In the two mentioned (ma and mono no aware) there is already a small source of inspiration for the superficial understanding of that difficult and unique intertwine typical of Japan: art, philosophy, harmony and divine applied to visual arts. If there is an art that in Japan more than others is the synthesis of this is shodō (書道), the famous art of calligraphy[3]. Very ancient are the traditions of ikebana (生け花- floral compositions) and origami (折り紙- the creation of figures obtained by folding sheets of paper)[4] that still today are successful and are well known outside Japan. These two visual arts also combine values such as aesthetics, balance and harmony and are part of the inimitable cultural heritage of Japan.

Precisely because Japanese art culture has been the subject of countless studies, research, publications, exhibitions, articles and more, this article will barely mention the more modern and niche forms of visual art, perhaps less well known in the West. Inevitably, if you put art and Japan in the same sentence the first thing that comes to mind is almost always ukiyo-e and Katsushika Hokusai, one of its greatest masters. Hokusai was also a productive manga artist, in which he depicted subjects of all kinds including monsters, caricatures and nude figures. These elements make it possible to mention a genre that can also be ascribed to a lesser known manga in the West, ero-guro. With its deeply disturbing images, ero-guro is all too much part of the concept of visual art that should arouse emotion. It is composed of illustrations that mix horror, nonsense and eros, creating visually magnificent but difficult to accept combinations without a certain deep knowledge of Japanese imagery in this direction (think of the famous hentai[5]). Going back to Hokusai for a moment, who wouldn't shiver from suddenly switching from his tranquil landscapes to The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife? The latter is part of the genre called shunga[6]. A thought at this point could go to the beloved Japanese anime and video games that have literally exploded around the world since the 1980s, also acting as a cultural vehicle. Both have brought their erotic, horror and extravagant elements (often separately, more rarely combined) to the West as well, contributing to making the most unique aspects of Japanese society known. Among them, a fervid imagination about futuristic and ultramodern things by a population that was growing exponentially in electronics and technology at the time.

Technological innovation (to which Japan has made an irreplaceable contribution) created new visual art forms that broke the bond with the past. Digital photography was added to classical painting and artistic installations (even of enormous dimensions) to sculpture. Design, research, novelty and beauty manage to intertwine and separate, linking old Japanese artists to new ones. A continuous change, a continuous evolution in time. Filling the void with pathos, precisely. Technology, instead of sweeping everything away as often happens, has provided new tools to generate ideas and nurture talent. Daido Moriyama is one of the greatest masters of Japanese photography, with world exhibitions going from London to New York. His success has made Japanese street photography known everywhere. His photographs are strong, provocative, characterized by a very contrasted black and white that tell of a Japan struggling with a post-war identity change[7]. On the other hand, the artist Chiharu Shiota (who was a student of Marina Abramovic) is famous for her installations that represent spiderwebs, wires, pipes and various everyday objects[8], creating spectacular narratives and extremely engaging impressions. In the fashion world a revolution took place in the 1970s with the rise of three of Japan's most famous designers: Rei Kawabuko[9], Yoshij Yamamoto and Issey Miyake.

It is always the beloved/hated modern art that has the whole world debating. Japan, as in many other fields, does not only have the charm of a glorious past. Japanese contemporary art also has a lot to say. Between the 1950s and 1970s the artistic group Gutai, founded by Jiro Yoshihara[10], was particularly active. Rejecting tradition, Gutai proposed artistic performances and theatrical shows based on immediacy and innovation, reacting to what was the rigid post-war climate. In fact, Gutai pursued the goal of spreading freedom of expression through different methods and styles, a goal particularly felt in a Japan that was slowly recovering in those years. More or less in the same years the Mono-Ha current developed, whose disciples, like the members of Gutai, sought innovation and artistic novelty by challenging tradition. They were distinguished by the use of natural materials and the idea of men in relation to nature, space, things. Among the most famous contemporary artists stands out the elderly Yayoi Kusama[11], known all over the world. A lively spirited woman despite a rather hard life behind her, she revolutionized contemporary Japanese art. Her long-standing talent ranges from painting, ceramics and fashion to writing. Her style tends towards pop art and surrealism, and she was one of the leading roles of the artistic avant-garde of the fabulous New York of the 1960s.

One of the major contemporary art museums in Japan is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa. Other museums worth mentioning are the Migo Museum in Shiga and the Adachi Art Museum in Shimane. In Tokyo there are a lot of museums, but the Idemitsu Museum and the National Museum of Modern Art[12] are worth a visit if you want to know more about different aspects of the classical culture of the country. Finally, for those who want to deepen the Japanese art in general before leaving for the beautiful Japanese land, there is the opportunity to consult the excellent portal Enjoy my Japan, part of the JNTO website, the Japanese National Tourist Organization[13]. There you can find the best artistic attractions also by sector (museums, architecture or theatre).













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  • L'Autore

    Mario Rafaniello

    Mario Rafaniello Vice Responsabile della rubrica “Culturalmente Imparando”. Partecipa anche all’entusiasmante progetto “Japan 2020” e si interessa di arte, cultura e letteratura.

    Laureato in Giurisprudenza e laureando in Relazioni Internazionali. Attualmente collabora con diversi portali online.


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