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This lecture was held at a conference in the University of Texas

Jan Krikke

China, Japan and the Birth of Modernism:
Eastern Aesthetics and the Reassertion of the Female Principle

This paper is an attempt to place the development of modern art and technology into a female-principle-vs-male-principle and feminist perspective. It is based on my own study on the influence of Chinese-Japanese aesthetics on the Modernist Revolution in the West (between the 1860s and the 1920s), and on the work of Shulamith Firestone and Lawrence Taub. I will try to show that while the West developed its “natural science”, the Far East developed what we may call its “natural aesthetic”. Both created the Modernist Revolution, but the refusal of Western scholars, art historians, critics and theorists to acknowledge the equal role of the East in the modernist revolution process is another example of the repression of the female principle.

Art and technology are the reverse sides of the same coin. In “The Dialectic of Sex”, Shulamith Firestone defines creation of culture as a dialectic between the Aesthetic Mode and the Technological Mode. Firestone associates the aesthetic response with the female principle: subjective, intuitive, introverted, wishful, concerned with the subconscious (the id), etc., and the technological response with the male principle: objective, logical, extroverted, concerned with the conscious mind (the ego), etc.

Lawrence Taub, in his book “The Spiritual Imperative: Sex, Age, and the Last Caste,” applies similar terms to describe what he calls the sexo-cultural division of the world as described in his Sex Model. Humanity first developed yin-like female-principle oriented societies, and reached the next stage of development through the yang-like, male-principle oriented phase. The latter would predominate in Western culture, while the East retained more of its female-principle-like qualities. This led to what Taub calls the sexo-cultural division of the world into the “yinner East” and the “yanger West.” (Note that the line of Taub’s sexo-cultural division of the world runs roughly between Hinduist India and the Moslem Near East; I focus on the Far East, the “Confucian” part of Asia, primarily China, Korea and Japan, the region Taub associates with the worker caste in his Caste Model.)

Firestone’s definition of the male-like Technological Mode and the female-like Aesthetic Mode, together with Taub’s division of the world into the yinner East and the yanger West, provide a framework for a new look at the history of modern art and science. First of all, history shows that the West, taking the Technological Mode to its extreme, developed the scientific revolution. The Far East, by not carrying the empirical method far enough, failed to develop a natural science. But it retained more of its yinner qualities, and hence continued to rely more on the Aesthetic Mode. This affected both its cultural development and its world view. In the words of sinologist George Rowley, “The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but through art.”

China’s “artistic” culture played a key role in the development of the Modernist Revolution. With Japan as the intermediary, China provided the Modernist Revolution with fundamental principles in art and architecture. I will briefly describe the careers of two modernists who played a pivotal role in this development: Vincent van Gogh and Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the 1850s, several modern-minded artists in France discovered the Japanese woodblock print. The prints arrived in the West after Japan had ended her national isolation and joined the family of nations. The woodblock prints, unpretentious “snapshots” from daily life in pre-modern Japan, became part of a fad in Europe that came to be known as “Japonism.” By the 1860s, nearly all the French artists who developed Impressionism were collecting Japanese prints. The prints provided France’s modern-minded painters with an alternative to the conventional “pictorial grammar” of European painting, and would revolutionize European aesthetic sensibilities.

Traditionally, European art was based on optical representation. This pictorial technique originated in Greece, where the science of optics was invented. In the early days of the Renaissance, artists-cum-architects further developed this optical tradition by inventing linear or “scientific” perspective. This wedding of optics and geometry enabled artists to create coherent pictorial space. Renaissance artists also perfected the technique of depicting the effects of light and shadow, or clair-obscure. Up to the end of the 19th century, linear perspective and clair-obscure governed the pictorial grammar of the European painting.

The Japanese print (like its Chinese prototype), was based on a very different pictorial grammar. Optics played no part in the pictorial tradition of the Far East (nor, for that matter, in any other culture). Being non-optical, the Japanese woodblock print had no light source, and hence no shadows. Instead, the prints were composed of flat, unmodulated colors, delineated by the calligraphic brushstrokes. And rather than using linear perspective, the Japanese used a projection method invented by Chinese artists some 2000 years ago. In the West, this projection came to be known as axonometry (or “parallel perspective”).

The first modernist to incorporate elements of the the Japanese pictorial grammar was Edouard Manet. Shocking the French cultural establishment, Manet created several paintings in flat, unmodulated colors, paying only lipservice to the rules of “modeling” objects in clair-obscure, (i.e “The Fifer”). Critics ridiculed Manet, calling him “a painter of playing cards.” But Manet became the hero of modern-minded artists like Monet, Renoir and Pissaro, who likewise were inspired by the Japanese aesthetics.

One of the first critics to articulate the Japanese role in the modernization of European painting was Edmond de Goncourt, who wrote: “When I said that Japonism was in the process of revolutionizing the vision of the European people, I meant that Japonism brought to Europe a new sense of color, a new decorative system, and, if you will, a poetic imagination in the invention of the objet d’art, which never existed even in the most perfect medieval or Renaissance pieces.”

Of the early modernists, it was Vincent van Gogh who best understood the deeper implications of Japan’s role in th e birth of modernism. Van Gogh arrived in Paris from his native Holland when Impressionism was well into its second decade. Earlier in his career, Van Gogh had been inspired by Francois Millet of the Barbizon school, the group of social-minded artists that first rebelled against the French art establishment in the 1850s. Like the Barbizon artists, Van Gogh had depicted the harsh living conditions of peasants and sweatshop workers in Holland, culminating in his famous “Potato Eaters”. Before coming to Paris, Van Gogh believed the Barbizon school represented the avant-garde in European art.

While not conventional in the “Salon” style of the art establishment, Van Gogh’s “social realism” relied on the conventional pictorial grammar of European art — linear perspective and clair-obscure. Once in Paris, he realized that the avant garde had taken an entirely new, “aesthetic” dimension. And it was clear to him that the Japanese print had been the catalyst for this new pictorial style. “You will understand the change in painting,” he wrote to his sister in Holland, “when you think of the colorful Japanese pictures one sees everywhere.”

Van Gogh, perhaps alone among his contemporaries, realized that the Japanese print had liberated European art from its optical straitjacket. He spent nearly two years adjusting his painterly technique, discarding his old palet and learning to use flat, pure (rather than “naturalistic”) colors. This involved the study of new color phenomena like “simultaneous contrast” and “complimentary contrast”. What happens when yellow is juxtaposed with blue? How is green affected when juxtaposed by red? As if to internalize the pictorial language of the Japanese artists, obviously masters of color combinations, Van Gogh copied several Japanese woodblock prints in oil and canvas.

After two years in Paris he moved to the south of France, where he painted the images that would make him a legend. The Sunflowers, Bridge at Arles, and the Harvest at La Crau, all these paintings have something in common with the Japanese print: they convey a visual [italics] rather than an optical [italics] effect.

What is the difference between the former and the latter? As we noted earlier, the effect of clair-obscure is the result of light. In optical art, shadows are the result of a light source. Van Gogh was the first modernist who completely eliminated all traces of optical effects from his paintings. The Sunflowers, for instance, has neither light source nor shadows. As in the “shadowless” Japanese prints, the light in the Sunflowers is “internal”. The painting is no longer an optical facsimile of optical reality, it has become a reality in its own right.

The realization that a painting is an artificial, two-dimensional mediu m, (and visually more expressive when treated as such), became a hallmark of modern art. While Van Gogh never articulated his thoughts on the subject, he no doubt realized that he had played a key role in liberating European art from its optical straitjacket. But he alluded to his Japanese source of inspiration in several self-portraits. In one such painting he portrayed himself as a Buddhist monk, with his head shaven. And shortly after cutting a part of his earlobe, he painted a self-portrait with the bandaged ear. Behind him, hanging on the wall, was a Japanese print.

Impressionism would lead to a host of other artistic movements in Europe, but by the turn of the century, the role of Japanese art in the birth of the modernist idiom was largely forgotten. However, Japonism was not confined to Europe. It also reached American shores. In 1892, Chicago was the site of the World Expo, and Japan was one of the participants. It was here that the young Frank Lloyd Wright discovered the art and architecture of Japan, and it would determine his career as an architect. Because he had such a strong impact on the development of modern architecture, Wright is sometimes called “the first architect”.

Wright was the first architect to develop an architectural style for the emerging industrial revolution. 19th Century architects, trained in the classical (“anthropological”) canons o f European architecture, lacked an artistic vocabulary for industrially produced building materials like reinforced concrete and structural steel. It was Wright who pioneered the first style for these new, rectangular building components. His revolutionary designs came to be known as the Prairie Houses. Wright graciously acknowledged his debt to Japan. He told an audience: “If Japanese prints were deducted from my education, I don’t know what direction the whole might have taken.”

Japanese architecture, like its pictorial arts, was based on the Chinese prototype. Its principle building material was wood, and it was “structural” in nature. Wood lends itself to structural treatment. (This in contrast to European architecture, traditionally based on stone, and “sculptural” in nature.) Whereas European architecture was typically designed from the outside inward, Japanese architecture was designed from the inside outward. Wright referred to Japanese architecture as “organic”, and likewise designed his buildings from the inside outward. He started with the floorplan rather than the facade, an approach that became one of the canons of modern architecture. (The Prairie Houses were, in fact, a synthesis of various sources: the “down-sized” Victorian Mansion of Norman Shaw (the Queen Ann style), the American Shingle Style, and Japanese architecture. Interestingly, Wright transformed th e grand “stair-and-living hall” of the Victorian mansion into what we call today the “living room.”)

Like Van Gogh, Wright believed that Japanese culture held an important lesson for the West. To comprehend this lesson, he explained, “we must take a viewpoint unfamiliar to us as a people, and in particular to our artists — the purely aesthetic viewpoint.” Wright’s Prairie House had a powerful impact on the modernist movement in Europe, especially on the modernist architects who developed the so-called “international style” in the 1920s.

Wright himself was not impressed by modernist experiments in Europe. He blamed the European modernists for failing to acknowledge the debt they owed to Japan. “The lessons of the Japanese print came home to me as it did to the European painters who developed Cubism and Futurism. It [the Japanese print] lies intrinsically at the root of all this so-called modernism. Strangely unnoticed, uncredited.” It was strange indeed. Was it the (rather male-like) concern with “originality” that blinded the European modernists to the Japanese role in the development of modernism? Europe’s male-dominated cultural elite, or so it seems, could not fathom the idea that the seemingly effeminate culture of Japan could have developed a higher level of aesthetic consciousness than Europe.

If Wright was correct in identifying Japan as the source of m odernism, he overlooked the importance of the discovery by the European modernists of axonometry, that ancient “parallel perspective” invented in ancient China. Axonometry perfectly suited the rectilinear, spatial nature of his Prairie House. Axonometry, popularized by the art movement De Stijl, was so crucial to the development of modern architecture in the 1920s that it was nearly synonymous with the modern architectural idiom. Today, architects the world over rely on axonometry to render the architectural structures of our modern material environment. Moreover, axonometry and the pictorial grammar that goes with it have come to play an important role in modern visual communications.

According to Shulamith Firestone, the distinction between the Technological Mode and the Aesthetic Mode will disappear. She explains that it will lead to the merger of art and reality, and ultimately to the disappearance of “culture”. (This process, now underway, will include the wedding of aesthetics and cybernetics.) Lawrence Taub sees the “yinner East” becoming the world’s leading region in the near future, (if only for a relatively short time), but he arrives at a similar conclusion — the merger of the female and male principle into an androgynous future. Art will be life and life will be art.