What began as a hurried trudge through yet another reading assignment for last semester’s art history class turned into an enjoyable experience, an essay that embodies several of the ideas that shape my world. It was Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows.
I enjoy Tanizaki’s poetic almost rambling style and the rich images he creates with words (perhaps that’s due in part to Seidensticker’s translation.) Many phrases struck me so significantly that I’m compelled to quote them. His ideas of inhabitation, full descriptions of traditional Japanese architecture, music, paper, pottery, and jade, etc. are worth consideration.
Tanizaki describes Japanese aesthetic preferences, the elegance of age, the glow of grime, the beauty of Japanese lacquerware with its “colors built up on countless layers of darkness” and silverware and metal with dark spoke patina, “the tarnish so patiently waited for,” and the traditional Japanese reverence for shadows and compares them to Western preferences such as the desire to drive out as many shadows as possible.
As a painter who has explored light and shadow for some time, I really appreciate Tanizaki’s explorations in shadows and darkness. His description “how the gold leaf of a sliding door or screen will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow, a faint golden light cast into the enveloping darkness” captures something I strive to show in my painting. His ideas that “we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates” and we “create a kind of beauty in the shadows we have made in out-of-the-way places” give words to the concepts I’ve been working with.
I identify with Tanizaki’s humble, Buddhist sensibility: “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.” I also battle the “evils of excessive illumination” (how fluorescent light alters the beauty of things) and I lament the loss of trees for the sake of building more highways, retail locations etc. “To snatch away from us even the darkness beneath trees that stand deep in the forest is the most heartless of crimes” exemplifies how I feel about the unnecessary removal of so many trees I see around us.
Give it a read and let me know what you think!