Picture courtesy of widewalls.
On a warm and breezy Halloween, Hiroshi Senju, acclaimed nihonga-painter and recipient of this year’s Eagle-On-The-World Award at JCCI’s 34th Annual Dinner, had an air of suaveness, donned in a dapper suit with clear-framed glasses. He expressed insightful thoughts on his philosophy, and described a few of his favorite painters throughout history before 60 attendees at the Nippon Club Tower Rose Room. The entire lecture was conducted in Japanese.
“Art was born when we began to communicate our observations from afar,” he said, alluding to the Paleolithic cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France. “Everything was seen from afar, and we began to share that knowledge together.”
He went on chronologically, spanning thirty-thousand years, from the delicacy of DaVinci to the subtle beauty of Claude Monet among other artists and concepts he admired. “Egyptian art was drawn sideways, whether it be birds or fish,” he said, “as that gave us a clear understanding of what everything in the world looked like. It was merely a science. Art is science.”
Art is science.
Taking this all in, I recalled the idea of Plato’s Allegory, where truth lay beyond the cave. Who were these people who etched such idiosyncratic drawings in the ruins of south France, and did they ever reach the top of the epistemological line—that is, get out of the cave? Were these drawings based on what they actually saw inside, or beyond the cave?
“Hokusai didn’t just draw a simple wave,” he said while I was thinking about the cave. By the time my eyes looked up from my notes, he’d already segued into Japanese art. “There’s a boat in the painting if you look closely, and rowers are on it. In other paintings, rowers are on it, smiling. If this giant wave hits them, it’s over. Yet they’re smiling. It is a life vs. death situation, a matter at stake, and Hokusai wanted to express how this was what they had to deal with in their daily lives.”
He mentioned Hiroshige, another ukiyo-e artist, and his emphasis on the serenity of daily life. “He drew heaven,” Mr. Senju said. And indeed, he did. While Hokusai depicted moments of imminence, moments that actually occurred in his eyes, Hiroshige focused on the glimpse of peace in ordinary settings. “No drama ever happens,” he said.
In fact, Mr. Senju’s influence stems from that very idea, of impressionism. On the top of his list, Pierre Auguste-Renoir, with his brushstroke precision of painting everyday life. “We reach peace through everyday beauty in a time of war and crisis,” Mr. Senju said, his slide displaying Renoir’s Girls at the Piano. “And that’s what Renoir expressed in his paintings. Beauty in everyday life.”
“Claude Monet once drew her own garden in the painting,” he continued. “…Edgar Degas painted the dress rehearsals of ballet dancers, not the actual performance.”
Beauty, beauty, I wrote down in my notes. Yet what stood out to me was his definition of what it meant in his view. “Beauty in itself is the satisfaction of living,” he said, both hands on the lectern. “We use that character, (美） when we say delicious in Japanese, it is a meaning of content, and I want you to think of the word ‘beauty’ that way. We feel a motivation to begin anew everyday, to start fresh. That, is beauty. And that’s what got me to paint ‘At World’s End.’ I want to make visible the things we are unable to see.”