Many of the actual colors seen in Japanese culture are different from what we see in the west. The color palette that Japanese see all of their lives creates for them a kind of subtle, parallel universe to ours. To clearly experience the difference between these two worlds, go to an art supply store and compare a Pantone color swatch book that shows all of the ink colors we see in western graphics with Toyo, the Japanese equivalent. The difference is amazing. I find leafing through page after page, shade after shade of pure Japanese color in a Toyo book to be a truly delicious, sensuous experience.
Even more fulfilling was to see these colors expressed in actual works of art at Nitten, the national annual fine arts show of Japan. Each year since the late 1800’s, the Japanese Ministry of Education has presented the Japan Art Academy Award, Nitten, to recipients in the fields of fine arts, music, literature, architecture, dance and drama. The Nitten show features sculpture, calligraphy, ceramics, textiles, bamboo art, lacquer-ware, western-inspired painting and, of course, Nihonga (Japanese-inspired painting). I caught the traveling show when it was in Kyoto a couple of weeks ago, spending most of my time there viewing tantalizing colors in one amazing, cavernous room after another.
What most captured my attention were paintings that were unmistakably Japanese in origin, by nature of high attention to detail, unique choice of colors and the actual artist materials used. Unlike the oils and acrylics of western art, Nihonga uses pigments from minerals and semi-precious stones that are bound with Nikawa, a kind of animal glue.
Nihonga became popular in Japan after 1869, when the country opened up to the world after 250 years of self-imposed isolation. Not only was western-style perspective adopted at that time, but the actual subject matter broadened greatly, while Japanese paints, paper and brushes continued to be utilized. Japanese art entered into the modern era while retaining its Japanese sensibility and its color palette.
Each of the paintings expressed nature in a way that reminded me of the Rimpa school of the 1700’s and its western offspring, Art Nouveau. I found them to be enchanting, otherworldly views of nature, secret, flavorful glimpses into devic kingdoms or lands that exist somewhere between reality and the other side.
- My conversation with John Gauntner
- Contemporary Lacquer Artist