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Sweet Mysteries of Life 

Japanese works from the 14th and 15th centuries find richness in the mundane.

"Landscape in Autumn," follower of Sesshu Toyo.
  • "Landscape in Autumn," follower of Sesshu Toyo.
The detective in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter" finds an incriminating piece of evidence where none of his police associates had bothered to look: on a letter rack in plain view. Sometimes, we are so quick to assume that anything important must be hidden, we overlook what practically stares us in the face. The medieval Japanese artists who created the seductively simple ink paintings now at the Cleveland Museum of Art consistently avoided that error: Like Poe's Inspector Dupin, they were adept at discovering the depth concealed on the surface.

Sophisticated simplicity is the hallmark of the approximately 35 pieces on display in Ink Paintings and Ash-Glazed Ceramics. The Japanese ink paintings constitute the bulk of the show, but there are also some Korean examples in the genre as well as choice examples of Japanese calligraphy and a few ceramic vessels from the period. The works are captivating, but viewers in the West must make the cultural leap necessary to appreciate this art. After all, these pieces were created by 14th- and 15th-century Japanese ink painters in a preindustrial Japan, when the land had not yet been tamed. Perhaps Americans might better understand the iconic significance of such images to the Japanese if they recall how they feel in front of one of Thomas Cole's enormous 19th-century paintings of an untamed American wilderness in the Catskills, or when they gaze at the wide open spaces of Monument Valley, Utah, where vestiges of a frontier past still linger.

Yamashita Yuji, an art historian who has contributed an essay to the illustrated catalog that accompanies this show, poignantly summarizes the challenge that constantly seems to shadow exhibits like this one. Says Yuji: "Even if I grasp the thoughts of these people who lived four or five hundred years ago, how many [other] people will understand what they are saying?" Yuji answers her own question. In her opinion, such understanding is possible. She thanks Clevelander George Gund III, who provided the entire contents of the show from his extensive private collection, and applauds him for being one who "understands these ink painters who lived so far away in Japan and Korea all those centuries ago."

Many of these works seem to demand that we take them at face value. We see mountaintops, birds, and the changing seasons, but there is no mystery or unexplained tension. In the West, art that grabs an audience by its collective lapel is often prized (think of Andy Warhol's disaster series). People mill around such works and mutter, "Why was he so interested in disasters?" A helpful bystander might offer: "He sure was sick." With the tolerance threshold raised this high, one can easily imagine a viewer standing before the works in this exhibit, wearing a quizzical expression and softly asking, "Is that all?"

In the work "Bamboo and Plum," dated between 1504 and 1589 and executed by Sesson Shukei, there is a white plum branch and some bamboo stalks, nothing else. And yet, there is both serenity and a dancing, energetic impulse here that commands attention if you let it. There is serenity in the plum. To the Japanese, the plum signifies high moral character and scholarly accomplishments. The energy comes from the way the artist creates the scene with swift and economical brushwork. He uses vibrant strokes that mimic the smooth texture of the bamboo plants and the wispy insubstantiality of the plum branches. There is no wasted effort, and every stroke is necessary.

There is a paradox in works such as "Bamboo and Plum." Pianist Charles Rosen, in his book The Classical Style, describes a similar combination of simplicity and sophistication in the music of 18th-century Austrian composer Joseph Haydn. Referring to Haydn's symphonies, Rosen writes: "[Their] direct reference to rustic nature is accompanied by an art learned almost to the point of pedantry. Haydn's most rustic finales generally contain his greatest display of counterpoint. Nevertheless, the apparent naïveté is at the heart of Haydn's manner." So the technical virtuosity of a Shukei or a Haydn is placed in the service of a vision of life in which true mastery exists not in attempting to understand what makes the universe tick, but rather in narrowing one's glance to take in the fullness of what is near at hand.

For a Japanese master such as Shukei, this attempt to capture the fullness of what is obvious and close by has a deeply religious motivation. Not coincidentally, the artists in this show were ardent followers of Zen Buddhism. In Japan, the changing of the seasons, the transition from youth to old age, and the simple daily rituals in which people engage are not scoffed at as irrelevant or unbefitting for treatment by fine artists. In these routines and rhythms, the Japanese find an expression of the Zen Buddhist notion of "mono non aware," a "sympathetic sadness" at the harshness of the natural order that ultimately enables one to transcend it.

For example, in an autumn landscape dated between 1420 and 1506 and executed by a follower of Sesshu Toyo (the most revered of all the medieval Japanese ink painters), the calmness seems tinged with sadness. "Landscape in Autumn" features a fisherman's hut near water's edge. A set of craggy mountainous formations stand in the background. Near the water, there is a fishing boat and nets. Finally, there is a misty area between the humble dwelling and those tall, rocky cliffs. What initially impresses as a masterful rendering of a typical Japanese landscape is really an acknowledgment of the progression of the seasons. There is an acceptance that cold weather will approach, and that it might threaten the absent fisherman's livelihood. Nature is not to be feared, though: One senses that the world shown here is stable, and that summer and spring will arrive in due course.

A catalog note suggests that, in both medieval and modern-day Japan, Toyo's paintings "brought a comfortable, intensely felt sense of visual recognition, at once exciting yet hugely stable." It's the underlying sense of stability that ultimately makes "Landscape in Autumn" sing. One has the feeling, looking at this piece, that the fisherman who works these waters might lead a minimal life, but there are inexhaustible natural riches around him which are a source of solace and delight.

Ultimately, after viewing this fine exhibit, one is left with what scholar Miyajima Shin'ichi has termed "the ardent affection for humankind and nature in Japanese painting." The artists here painted mundane subject matter, not because they couldn't think of something that would bring down the house, but because they aimed to cultivate an art of calmness and repose. Instead, they encourage the viewer to search for the riches that are concealed on the surface of everyday life.

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