Normally, The Japan Times likes to cover exhibitions in the earlier part of their run, rather than 10 days before they close; but, in this case, our tardiness may be strangely appropriate, because the essence of the show at the Suntory Museum of Art is the appreciation of things in the shadow of their future absence.
The “Mono no aware and Japanese Beauty” exhibition brings together a range of works, including paintings, ceramics and lacquerware, that seek to explore one of the more complex and interesting aesthetic ideas in Japanese culture.
Pregnant with nuance and connotation, the term “mono no aware” inevitably loses something in translation, but the direct meaning — “the sadness or pathos of things” — is a starting point. This refers to the heavily Buddhist culture of the Heian Period (794-1185), when the term first arose, and implies the transience of carnal and material life.
But this is also misleading, as the phrase, especially through the work of the Neo-Confucian scholar, poet and artist Motoori Norinaga (1730 -1801), has come to stand for “sensitive, exquisite feelings experienced when encountering the subtle workings of human life or the changing seasons,” as the catalogue phrases it. In Norinaga’s interpretation, the phrase included not just sad or fleeting emotions but also joy and intense appreciation.
The exhibition opens with a few elegant, timeworn scrolls from the Heian and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods, depicting the lives of the bygone aristocracy. These include a lotus sutra on a paper fan, a depiction of an insomniac noblewoman, and a scroll showing a retired emperor visiting the town of Ono (in what is now Fukushima Prefecture), to view the snowy scenery.
This selection suggests slightly guilt-ridden, restless nobles with perhaps too much time on their hands, seeking solace in beauty. The reference to Fukushima, one of the prefectures hardest hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, also hints at a modern relevance for the idea of appreciation tinged with sadness.
The next part of the exhibition focuses on Norinaga, and includes a self-portrait at the age of 44 and examples of his brush calligraphy. The poetic inscription on the portrait also sounds an important theme in the exhibition, namely the communication of mono no aware through poetry and art.
Mono no aware is usually defined in terms of an experienced sensation or emotion, as something passively enjoyed. But if it were only this then it would be a solipsistic pleasure lost in solitary contemplation rather than the long-running cultural thread that it is. To exist as a cultural phenomenon it has to have a social aspect, so much emphasis is given by the exhibition to communicating mono no aware to others through art and poetry.
For this reason, it is represented by a rich symbolic language that many can share. This ranges from aspects of nature to certain poets and stories.
The exhibition takes a rather indiscriminate view with regard to symbols from nature. Most of the well-known seasonal varieties of birds and flowers are included. There are bowls enameled with cherry blossoms, a saddle inlaid with a bush-clover design in mother-of-pearl, and folding screens adorned with snow-clad evergreens. And in all this profusion, the selectivity of the aesthetic principle seems somewhat lost.
Luckily, certain motifs of nature, such as moonlight and autumn grasses, are more in evidence. These seem particularly representative of the concept in question. The autumn full moon about to wane, symbolic of the “adult activities” of the aristocratic culture, was thought to evoke mono no aware. A hanging scroll ink painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu of a moonlit landscape presents this most effectively.
The most prominent motif at the exhibition, however, is autumn grass. The show boasts a wide array of items adorned with this comparatively low-key, but very evocative element.
Of particular interest is a pair of six-paneled Edo Period screens covered in gold leaf, with a quails and pampas grass design. As we look at them, the elegant brush strokes of the dense pampas grass seem to bend and undulate, giving us a sense of a gently blowing wind.
Such elements of nature are also very important in the stories most associated with the concept. These include the “Tale of Saigyo,” about a famous itinerant poet, who sought out scenic beauty to inspire him, represented here by two picture scrolls. More famously is the “Tale of Genji.” According to Norinaga, this tale with its frequent recourse to moonlight was written specifically to make people conscious of mono no aware.
For a modern audience visiting the museum off the busy streets or shops in the Roppongi district, mono no aware may be an elusive concept, but the muffled and ever-so-slightly shadowy confines of the Suntory Museum of Art help the works in this exhibition to at least give us a whispering sense of it.
“Mono no Aware and Japanese Beauty” at the Suntory Museum of Art runs till June 16; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Tue. www.suntory.com