BE­YOND THE WAVE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Art does not arise from dis­em­bod­ied thoughts but out of par­tic­u­lar me­dia and ma­te­ri­als. In fact when we speak of aes­thetic ideas, we are re­fer­ring to ideas that are in­sep­a­ra­ble from feel­ing and even the sen­sory world, which are at the core of the mean­ing of the word aes­thetic it­self.

Thus a painter’s ideas de­velop out of han­dling paint, and even par­tic­u­lar kinds of paint: the oil painter and the fresco painter do not think aes­thet­i­cally in the same way, just as the carver and the mod­eller imag­ine the world dif­fer­ently. Sub­ject and genre are also im­por­tant. A still life painter such as Gior­gio Mo­randi thinks through the ar­range­ment of bot­tles and jars, while a land­scape painter’s ideas arise out of the en­counter with na­ture.

From the per­spec­tive of the viewer, in the same way, the aes­thetic ef­fect of a work is in­sep­a­ra­ble from its ma­te­rial form. A paint­ing is not just an im­age of some­thing but a pat­tern of pig­ments on a flat sur­face, a set of marks that can ar­tic­u­late the work’s con­struc­tive logic or af­fec­tive en­gage­ment with its sub­ject.

Print­mak­ing is a par­tic­u­larly good il­lus­tra­tion of this prin­ci­ple be­cause the ma­te­rial pro­cess is so elab­o­rate and may en­tail many steps be­fore the fi­nal im­pres­sion. Un­like a paint­ing, which is built up pro­gres­sively, prints in­volve lengthy prepa­ra­tion in ad­vance, while the fi­nal im­pres­sion is made in a sin­gle mo­ment. That sin­gu­lar­ity and whole­ness of the printed im­age is fun­da­men­tal to its aes­thetic ap­peal.

But each va­ri­ety of print­mak­ing will have its own par­tic­u­lar re­sources and ef­fects, from wood­block to en­grav­ing, from etch­ing to aquatint. And Ja­panese wood­block is a com­plex and re­fined tech­nique, em­ploy­ing mul­ti­ple blocks for dif­fer­ent hues. In Europe, mul­ti­ple wood­blocks were used only in a lim­ited way, and only in mono­chrome, for the chiaroscuro wood­cuts of the 16th cen­tury. Mul­ti­ple colour blocks were not re­ally used un­til the rise of colour linocuts, in a much sim­pli­fied im­i­ta­tion of the Ja­panese prac­tice, early in the 20th cen­tury.

In the Ja­panese ukiyo-e tra­di­tion, the artist would work with spe­cial­ist block cut­ters, de­sign­ing each im­age from the out­set with the con­straints of the wood­block medium in mind, which meant broadly con­ceiv­ing the de­sign in black out­lines and flat colour ar­eas.

The first thing the wood­cut­ter had to do was to pro­duce a key-block, which com­prised the un­der­ly­ing black out­line of the de­sign. A copy of the black out­line draw­ing was glued face­down to the block, and the pa­per moist­ened and rubbed away to leave the black ink out­line on the block. The wood around that out­line was South Wind, Clear Sky (Red Fuji) Bunya no Asayasu (Fu­miya no Asayasu) then care­fully cut out to leave only the out­line stand­ing, in re­verse.

This block was then inked and pro­duced the black out­line of the de­sign, now the right way around again. This first block would re­main the first one used in the fi­nal print­ing pro­cess, but it was also em­ployed to make fur­ther blocks for each of the colours to be used in the com­po­si­tion. The area that was to print as red, for ex­am­ple, would be de­ter­mined and the rest of that block was cut away so only that sec­tion printed.

The re­sult is a par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic ef­fect in Lake Suwa in Shi­nano Prov­ince which forms are ar­tic­u­lated in thin black out­lines and ar­eas of colour are printed as pri­mar­ily flat. There is no mod­el­ling of the kind used in Western paint­ing, or even in Western print­mak­ing tech­niques such as en­grav­ing and etch­ing. Part of the ap­peal of Ja­panese ukiyo-e prints, in fact, is the ten­sion be­tween of­ten dra­matic per­spec­tive ef­fects, bor­rowed from Western art, and the flat­ness of in­di­vid­ual forms.

All of th­ese ef­fects are beau­ti­fully ex­em­pli­fied in the work of Kat­sushika Hoku­sai (1760-1849), one the great­est ex­po­nents of this art form, who in the course of his long ca­reer, and fol­low­ing Kita­gawa Uta­maro, helped to raise the coloured wood­block print from the sta­tus of a pop­u­lar medium to some­thing that could be en­joyed by the most re­fined con­nois­seurs.

The Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria had the fore­sight to ac­quire some im­por­tant pieces by Hoku­sai as early as 1909, in­clud­ing the fa­mous Great Wave, and has con­tin­ued to build its col­lec­tion since then. For this ex­hi­bi­tion ad­di­tional works have been bor­rowed from the Ja­pan

Kat­sushika Hoku­sai’s (1830-34)

(1835-36), left;

(1830-34)

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