It is inevitable upon the start of a journey into the art of bonsai that you are immersed deeply in Japanese and Eastern philosophy.
As is well written, like many elements of Japanese culture, the art of bonsai originates from China. The Japanese art of bonsai originated from the Chinese practise of penjing. From the 6th century onwards, Imperial embassy personnel and Buddhist students from Japan visited and returned from mainland China, bringing back souvenirs including container plantings.
Bonsai, when mastered by the Japanese, applied a standard of mastery and care inherited from the many centuries-long cultures of moulding nature into their control while retaining its natural and untouched beauty. This inherent connection to the natural world and an understanding of its harmonic relationship to the human soul elevated the art form to a higher plane. It is within this realm, the realm of Japanese aesthetics and design, where the art of bonsai transcends.
The display of a bonsai is as vital as the bonsai itself. Not merely the tree’s form and the pot it grows in, but how it is presented—a balance of positive and negative space and the ratio between highlights and shadows. To stare into a mature bonsai tree is to look deep within yourself, see a miniature tree suddenly become a thousand-year-old specimen standing tall in a forest or a lone tree anchored deep within the middle of an open field. To hang from a mountain cliff top or provide a shaded place to sit in a park. No matter where this image takes you, take you it will and often, it is not always something that happens by design, yet it is precisely by design that the feeling has been stirred.
I have been looking into designing and building an outdoor Tokonoma to display and photograph my trees in. Of course, I would love to have a space in which I could create my own Chashitsu (tea room). With its total minimalistic beauty and tokonoma (display alcove). Rented accommodation in ex-soviet-era building stock doesn’t lend itself to that, so I will wait until I find the right space for that to happen one day.
In Praise of Shadows
It was entirely a cosmic coincidence that on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, I picked up and read Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows.
Tanizaki was a Japanese writer and novelist born in Tokyo in 1886. Seen today as one of the greatest Japanese writers, his lifetime spanned three eras (Meiji, Taishō, Shōwa) in which the most rapid and significant changes to Japanese culture and society occurred. Tanizaki died in 1965 in Kyoto.
In 1933 Tanizaki penned an essay which looked at the aesthetics of Japanese culture through the lens of light moreover focused on the absence of light. The shadows. During a period which saw the mass electrification of Japan and the dazzling Western-style lights of Tokyo, Tanizaki contrasts the West’s love of light with the traditional love in Japanese culture of the darkness. The lantern and candles were being replaced by wiring and light bulbs. Bulbs that radiated heat as they burn away the filament in the wasteful quest to banish all shadows.
“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
― Junichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
Tanizaki makes a case that the appreciation and understanding of shadow and harnessing of soft diffused natural light is a fundamental and core principle that underpins Japanese aesthetics from architecture to painting and even to fashion, dinnerware and even the food on your plate or in your miso soup bowl. Tanizaki juxtapositions this against the bright dazzling lights of the West and how westerners sought to illuminate everything and every space in their homes due to the Atomic age of power. Tanizaki says this had a detrimental effect on the soul in a world where we have become sceptical of darkness and programmed to be afraid of it.
While Tanizaki’s essay somewhat jumps around as if being the thoughts of someone who has maybe drunk one too many Sake, the opposite is true. Tanizaki’s writing style and the accuracy of the translation flow effortlessly like the morning light from sunrise through a half-open window blind. I especially liked Tanizaki’s proposition in the poetry of Japanese toilets. While we in the west may squirm at the concept, Tanizaki illustrates the ultimate moment of calmness and mindfulness while defecating in his traditional outdoor WC. The sound of rain, the skirmish of the insects, and how the defused light spills through the shoji window. While it may seem crude in how I write this when reading In Praise of Shadows, you understand Tanizaki’s point of view, how we in the west try to eliminate dirt and darkness at every step. At the same time, traditional Japanese and other Eastern cultures celebrate grime. It is not suggesting that Tanizaki’s toilet was dirty; far from it, it was pristine. It was about a broader concept and philosophy that only when things looked aged by the time they have gathered the scars and dirt of being used for their function or weathered by the changing seasons do they start to have character, have life, have a satisfying and pleasing aesthetic.
“We Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce, then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and discover its own particular beauty there. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.”
― Junichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
This is something I can now understand and relate to. On my very first trip to Asia, to Korea, one of the things which most struck my senses was the feeling of dirt. I would notice and especially after lunch times, masses of trash and food waste pilled up out in the early afternoon sun, emitting a foul smell and an unsightly street scene. I didn’t understand this and felt it was disgusting to my western way of life. We hide the bins at the back of restaurants, we don’t present them out front of the store. However, on reflection, and after reading Tanizaki’s essay, I now get it. The trash being out front was purely a practical situation. The trash was always collected each day in the afternoons. So to relieve the restaurants of food waste before the evening preparations and service of meals for dinner. There was no shame in the trash piles as they would soon be removed. The bigger the trash pile, the more popular the restaurant was. It was a sign of a good place to eat, not the opposite. Many more revelations have occurred to me after reading In Praise of Shadows. It is one of the most profound and most interesting essays I have ever read.
Chasing the twilight
As I put down and finished the essay. The late evening light streamed in through my windows which face Southwest over the city of Prague down towards the Vltava river. It was already late, well after 11 pm and the sunlight was not giving up even as the earth’s axis spun and the sun had long ago dipped down under the horizon. As I walked through the apartment my natural instinct was to turn the lights on. As I did I instantly turned them off again. I looked down through what is normally a dark hallway and instead, I suddenly saw the shadows as if they were, in fact, illuminating the way. The soft twilight that was coming through a small bathroom window cast a beautiful dim yet sure light onto the floor and wall. It was precisely at this moment that In Praise of Shadows clicked inside of my brain. I had spent my life living in the light, chasing the light both in my dwelling spaces and also in my photography and art. Now I see, that it is the shadows in which lies the beauty. Not just in the hard contrast of depth but in the richness and essence of the human soul and the human experience.
“The sun never knew how wonderful it was,” the architect Louis Kahn said, “until it fell on the wall of a building,”
― Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
- 🛒 In Praise of Shadows: Vintage Design Edition Paperback – 7 Nov. 2019
- 📺 Japanese broadcaster NHK Word has an hour-long documentary on In Praise of Shadows