Thursday, September 29, 2005

Review for Early Modern Japan Journal

I'm doing a review of a book called Mynah Birds and Flying Rocks: Word and Image in the Art of Yosa Buson by John M. Rosenfield, published 2003 by the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. The review is for Early Modern Japan Journal. This is an important book; Professor Rosenfield is a major scholar of Japanese art history, and of course Buson is a major Japanese artist, so this is a very welcome resource to have. It's a lovely book, with lots of illustrations. It does not try to offer a comprehensive discussion of the full range of Buson's paintings; rather, it chooses two motifs--as the title suggests--and uses them as the basis of an exploration of Buson, his life, and his work as both a poet and a painter. It's not terribly long: the text takes up less than sixty pages, with a few more given to brief appendices and bibliographies. However, it addresses a number of topics that are central to understanding Buson and his work, and while it does not explore them in great depth, it offers a lot of valuable insights.

The topics are:

  • Biography (Buson's life and reputation; his interactions with the haikai community, and other cultural groups)
  • Poetic pictures (Mynah bird pictures, the Nagasaki school of painting, literati painting, and 'poetic vision')
  • Poems and pictures combined (that is, haiga; Bashô and haiga, Buson and haiga, and the haikai imagination)
  • Indexical imagery (Rock motifs)
The introduction starts by saying "This small book explores the ways by which the Japanese poet and painter Yosa Buson (1716-1784) portrayed a realm of profound beauty and rich invention...Much of Buson's artistry is accessible to foreigners. His outlook and vocabulary are straightforward ones of shopkeepers, artisans, farmers, and fishermen. His imagery is often that of immediate experience: of stepping barefoot into a freezing stream, of trudging uphill against the wind, of reading by the dim light of an old paper lantern. His paintings and verses express the emotions of sensitive, thoughtful persons everywhere....[b]ut his intellect (and that of his friends) had been shaped by Chinese and Japanese cultural traditions of great antiquity, and he also emplyed complex, highly coded allusions which present-day audiences find arcane and obscure." This seems to me a pretty fair assessment. Rosenfield invokes Haruo Shirane's term "haikai imagination" (see HS's book on Bashô, Traces of Dreams) to sum up what Buson was doing (JR defers explanation of this until a later chapter, so I will too). JR's task is to reconcile contrasting aspects of Buson: his literary sensibility that was informed by Chinese and Japanese traditions at once, the conflict of high and low culture in haikai, and, of course, the competing and complementary media of poetry and painting. This is what's behind talking about both birds and rocks--two kinds of imagery, corresponding to a two-sided artist.

He proposes to explore "three ways in which this artist deployed the expressive resources of picture and verse." He explains that each of these three discussions was originally directed at a different audience, and that they differ in "intelligibility" to people of the present day:

  1. Poetic paintings. These are not conventional nanga paintings, but "innovative imagery closely linked to haikai." This seems reasonable. Buson's near contemporaries detected haikai-ness even in his Chinese-style paintings. Presumably this haikai-ness could be more or less dominant. It's something to think about.
  2. "Works intended for haikai audiences." Haiga, basically. Pictures+poems.
  3. Simple, spare paintings that look a lot like haiga except they don't have inscriptions. JR notes that these are very rare.
JR points out that types 2 and 3 require a lot of commentary before a viewer would understand them, and his book addresses this. Buson's style is extremely "unsystematic " and inconsistent, and thus present especially extreme challenges to the would-be interpreter. "The lack of inner consistencey in style and symbolism in Buson's paintings is yet another symptom of the extreme pluralism that beset Japanese culture nearing the end of its traditional social and political order."

This last sentence is pretty compelling and more or less is the central idea of the book. My first impulse is to be persuaded by it, the first part of the sentence at least. It's very nice to be offered some kind of tidy explanation of Buson's complexity or as the TV interior decorators say of haphazard decor, "eclecticism." I almost agree with it. The second half of the sentence, "Japanese culture nearing the end of its traditional social and political order" makes me a bit less comfortable--it seems to veer a bit close to a theory of intelligent design, if that's the right way to describe it. It's easy to see the symptoms of chaos after the chaos has broken out, and imagine that there's a connection. If things are breaking down, might not artists reflect this in their work by creating more order than less? is one point. But another is, when an artist is living in the twilight of an era, can he or she actually be aware of it? Who can tell the difference between twilight and dawn, if you don't have a clock or a compass?

This is what I'm thinking.