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    Photogravure etchings at http://kamprint.com/ & http://kamprint.com/xpress/

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In Praise of Shadows ・ 陰翳礼賛

Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows (陰翳礼賛) draws our attention to the very different nature of visual experience in an age before electric lights were widespread. Japanese dwellings, alcoves, ink-drawings, and interior spaces framed by tatami mats and shoji panels are best seen in the low light that was once customary. The dark lustre of lacquerware and yokan (a Japanese confection) looming out of a dark background create an appealing presence and warmth. And the stray reflections picked up by gold leaf convey the wonder of that precious metal as if its luminescence came from itself.

Gold reflections

Gold reflections

Flooded by bright lights, all these surroundings and objects become garish. Granting that such illumination has its uses, Tanizaki nevertheless notes that Japanese aesthetics developed from the conditions of daily life, where awareness and appreciation of shadows originated.

The plague of excessive illumination has only intensified since In Praise of Shadows was written. Street lights, neon signs, outdoor jumbo-telescreens, office towers have banished all trace of darkness from big cities. The cities themselves are linked by continuous chains of light. These show up clearly in satellite photos of the earth, where the relative brightness is taken for an index of civilization.

Earthlights

Earthlights

Big-city residents on rare journeys to dark country are mystified by our galaxy the Milky Way, a sight so seldom seen they hardly know what it is. Fireflies shun brightly-lit areas, which render their own light-displays invisible to prospective mates. They too are best appreciated in darkness.

Here are some excerpts from Tanizaki’s ‘In Praise of Shadows‘:

‘A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends. And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows — it has nothing else…. The light from the garden steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room.

Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa, Kyoto

Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa, Kyoto

‘We do our walls in neutral colors so that the sad, fragile, dying rays can sink into absolute repose…. We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them. We never tire of the sight, for to us this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament. And so, as we must if we are not to disturb the glow, we finish the walls with sand in a single neutral color.

‘Of course the Japanese room does have its picture alcove, and in it a hanging scroll and a flower arrangement. But the scroll and the flowers serve not as ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows…. A Japanese room might be likened to an inkwash painting, the paper-paneled shoji being the expanse where the ink is thinnest, and the alcove were it is is darkest…. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness.

Meigetsuin

Meigetsuin ・ 明月院

And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway…. This was the genius of our ancestors, that by cutting off the light from the empty space they imparted to the world of shadows that formed there a quality of mystery and depth superior to that of any wall painting or ornament.
Katsura Rikyu, Kyoto

Katsura Rikyu, Kyoto

‘Surely you have seen how the gold leaf of a sliding door or screen will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow, a faint golden light cast upon the enveloping darkness, like the glow upon the horizon at sunset. In no other setting is gold quite so exquisitely beautiful. You walk past, turning to look again, and yet again, and as you move away the gold surface of the paper flows even more deeply, changing not in a flash, but growing slowly, steadily brighter…

‘And above all there is rice. A glistening black lacquer rice cask set off in a dark corner is both beautiful to behold and a powerful stimulus to the appetite.

Rice

Rice

Then the lid is briskly lifted, and this pure white freshly boiled food, heaped in its black container, each and every grain gleaming like a pearl, sends forth billows of warm steam — here is a sight no Japanese can fail to be moved by. Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness….

‘And I realized then that only in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed….But in the the still dimmer light of the candlestand, as I gazed at the trays and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame, I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond, a beauty that I had not before seen.’

— Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, tr Thomas J Harper and Edward G Seidensticker (Sedgwick, Maine, USA: Leete’s Island Books, 1977; ‘In’ei’ Reisan’, Japanese text originally published in Keizai Orai, 1933 – 34)

Tanizaki’s ‘pale glow’ appears in the shoji screens of this photogravure etching of Katsura Rikyu (also viewable here).

An exhibit inspired by In Praise of Shadows was held in Nov 2010 in Tokyo, Japan. The noir quality of photogravure etching, with its deep blacks, darkly illuminated textures, and shadows within shadows, brings Tanizaki’s observations into another perspective. The darkness of interior spaces, as in Meigetsuin, is brought outdoors in prints such as Beyond the Sunset, Pentagram, and Vanished Stars.

Printed from: http://www.kamprint.com/views/?p=337 .
© Peter Miller 2017.

1 Comment  

  1. Peter Miller says:

    Thanks. Sorry for the late response. Your Comment was blocked by Akismet. Anyway I’m glad you enjoyed the Post.

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