Painting a hazy shade of ego

A look at the spirituality of Kaii Higashiyama

by C.B. Liddell

One of the words most often associated with the art of Kaii Higashiyama is spiritual.

But what exactly does this mean? The exhibition “Kaii Higashiyama: A Retrospective ” at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MOMAT) — celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of this great nihonga (Japanese-style painting) artist — is an excellent chance to explore spirituality in an artistic context.

Presenting 154 important works and sketches, the exhibition ranges from early pieces such as the luminous color-on-silk study “Autumn in the Mountainous Country” (1928), through the emergence of his trademark style to later forays into monochrome painting and works from his final decade.

While his earliest works are a joy to behold, they have the slightly anemic quality common to nihonga works that veer too close to Western art without actually crossing the border into the solidity of oils and canvas. “Mount Yakedake in Early Winter” (1931), for example, is ambitious in its composition, impressive in its precision and artistic technique, and soothing in its tonality. But it fails to convey the visceral impact of mountain scenery.

Higashiyama is arrived at his trademark style — concise composition, simplified forms, softened lines, tranquil colors — with his iconic 1950 painting “Road.” This remarkable work shows a road tapering off into the distance. Its simplicity, lack of detail and soft fuzzy texture has a strange psychological effect that works like a vacuum, sucking the viewer into the picture.

With no details to hold our attention, we feel compelled to project ourselves mentally along the inviting road; perhaps in the hope that we will find something more eye-catching or interesting over the horizon or round the corner.

“The simple and straightforward, refreshing and bright atmosphere is precisely Higashiyama’s sentiment at the time,” writes Masaaki Ozaki, explaining how the work struck a chord in post-World War II Japan. “Perhaps it also concurs with the social conditions of the time, having struggled through the postwar chaos and become able to spot the light.”

Together with ambitious large-scale works such as the astounding “Sound of Waves” (1975), a 36-meter panorama painted on 12 fusuma panels for the Toshodai-ji temple in Nara (the exhibition’s highlight), such subtly resonant paintings have enshrined Higashiyama’s reputation for spirituality, a quality the exhibition and catalog constantly din into us.

Describing an artist as having “great spiritual depth” is merely lazy, though, if you don’t actually explaining why his art is spiritual. To validly use the term in art criticism, it is vital to have a definition.

Spirituality is associated with our perceptions of the eternal and the infinite through history and science. Likewise, it can be found in music and art that creates a sense of awe or abstraction. The common factor is the distancing of our minds from immediate perceptions of the here and now. In other words, spirituality is the psychological opposite of the ego and the sensations that sustain it.

Any artist who softens the sensory impact of his work and introduces comparatively timeless themes, like mountains, the sea, and the cycle of the seasons into his work, as Higashiyama does, runs the risk of being thought spiritual. But Higashiyama’s art also operates for many viewers on a more purely personal and sensory level — one that is the antithesis of spirituality.

The clue to this is the deserted nature of the works and the cropping of them to amplify the rich sensory impact of nature. The golden crispness of the leaves in “Passing Autumn” (1990), the distant hum of a waterfall in “Evening Silence” (1974), and the seductive glow of the full moon rising over the treetops in “Cherry Blossoms in the Evening” (1982) have a strong sensual and Epicurean quality.

The way in which the elements of nature are singled out for sensory consumption is remarkably similar to how a good haiku works. What Higashiyama offers viewers is a selfish, sensually indulgent moment to themselves; enjoying an aspect of Nature, without anyone else cluttering up the scenario; a chance to switch off the other people we are all connected to and tune into ourselves.

This is the meaning of the ethereal white horse, the only inhabitant of pictures such as “Vibrant Green” (1982). It helps us project ourselves into the pictures to enjoy a selfish moment of calm before we return to the hurly-burly of self-sacrificing lives of work and family. It’s easy to understand Higashiyama’s immense popularity. But his works are loved not because of their “spirituality,” but because they give us a quiet chance to bask in our own egos.

“Kaii Higashiyama: A Retrospective ” is at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo till May 18; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.; closed Mon.); entrance ¥1,300. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.momat.go.jp