Japan: Three Waves of Influence, 1689-1939

Prof. Ciaran Murray

Lecture 2004-04-19

We were back on "home ground" at Shibuya Kyôiku Gakuen for our April meeting, when Dr. Ciaran Murray, a Council member and former editor of the Transactions, addressed us on "Japan: Three Waves of Influence, 1689-1939". Dr. Murray had invited many friends and colleagues to attend the meeting, and he spoke to a packed house. The occasion was further capped by refreshments kindly provided by Mrs. Murray, so we were able to stay on and talk in a convivial atmosphere after the formal part of the meeting; we are also grateful to Mr. Kadogawa of Shibuya Kyôiku Gakuen for staying to the end and helping us to clear everything away.

The summary that follows was prepared by the speaker himself -- a great boon when we had to get the Bulletin out quickly before Golden Week!

Ciaran Murray's thesis in "Japan: Three Waves of Influence, 1689-1939" was that three overlapping waves from Japan had so influenced the Romantic, Aesthetic and Modernist movements that the art history of Europe over 250 years could not be understood apart from them. For the first wave, sharawadgi, he referred to his book of that title, which traces Romanticism to reports from Deshima of the naturalistic gardens of Japan. In striking contrast to the geometrical gardens of contemporary Europe, these were seen to embody sharawadgi, or asymmetry. Gothic architecture was also referred to as sharawadgi, being perceived as natural and asymmetrical -- as a translation into stone of a stand of trees. It was so named for its supposed origin among the forest-dwelling Goths or ancient Germans, whose assemblies were thought to have been the source of Parliament.

Historically, none of these beliefs was true; but they are perpetuated in the Houses of Parliament, with their asymmetrical Gothic an architectural parallel to the Japanese garden. The Romantic movement also linked the ancient Britons with nature, as a result of which Oscar Wilde received a name from Celtic myth.  Wilde, however, is most deeply associated with Aestheticism, which is the polar opposite of Romanticism: where the latter places nature above art, the former places art above nature. For this the speaker assigned two causes, external and internal. The external was political: the discrediting of naturalism by the French Revolution, as a result of which Edmund Burke declared for art as against nature.  The internal was philosophical: the simultaneous exposition of a like philosophy by Immanuel Kant, which was brought back to France by Germaine de Staël.

From France, the Aesthetic movement was propagated in England by Wilde's associate, the American painter Whistler. Whistler portrayed his sitters in terms of art, not nature, in a stylisation influenced by the Japanese woodblock print, thus linking the Aesthetic movement with a second wave from Japan, ukiyoe. In an etching by Whistler of Battersea Bridge, this second wave merges into a third. While the structure of the bridge is derived from the woodblock print, the space beneath it suggests sumie, to which Whistler had access through its demonstration at a Paris exposition. Whistler sent the most prominent collector of his work, Charles Lang Freer, to Japan, where his advisor on its art was Ernest Fenollosa. Fenollosa in turn kept notebooks into which he transcribed his studies of Chinese and Japanese literature. These were given for editing to Ezra Pound, who found in them a high valuation of the unspoken. As space is to substance, so is silence to speech: while the principle is derived by Zen from the silence of the Buddha, it is ubiquitous in mystical literature. Examples were cited from Eckhart, Eriugena, Plato, Plotinus, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads -- and Nietzsche, a close friend of the Indologist Deussen, amongst whose disciples was Masaharu Anesaki, one-time Vice-President of the Society. Pound in turn was an influence on Eliot, helping him to create the silences of "The Waste Land"; and on Hemingway, whose characteristic technique has been identified as "The Thing Left Out". It was in terms of the more or less perilous disposition of space that Hemingway viewed the bullfight; D. T. Suzuki (another member of the Society) compared this to the Zen of the battlefield. The latter is evoked in the farewell poem of W.B. Yeats, who was deeply influenced by Suzuki, and whose work went through the phases of Romanticism, Aestheticism and Modernism, thus touching on all three waves of Japanese influence. Dr. Murray's survey therefore closed in the year Yeats died, two-and-a-half centuries exactly after the English revolution, the liberties of which had found expression in an adaptation of the gardens of Japan.

An apparently trivial question -- what was depicted on the fan in a Whistler painting -- elicited the fact that many of the Japanese items in his paintings belonged to Whistler's own collection, part of which was preserved in Glasgow. Asked if he was aware of the work of Mackintosh there, he replied that his School of Art, for example, created an uncannily Japanese ambience. Dr. Murray went on to speak of the exhibitions sponsored by the Japanese government in Paris, which recreated Japanese buildings and gardens, and featured demonstrations of calligraphy and sumie. Surprisingly the first had been put on by the Tokugawa government in 1867, the year before the Meiji Restoration.

Asked why he had spoken of Whistler rather than on the painters of Vienna and Paris, Dr. Murray replied that this went directly into literature. For Vienna, Klimt's influence by Japanese art, particularly the screen, was unmistakable. For Paris, one need go no further than Monet, the Japanese influences on whom were traced in the current issue of the Transactions. In London, on the other hand, Whistler felt himself so unappreciated that Wilde later remarked: "About the only thing which could have given Jimmy a good opinion of the English was their putting me in prison".

Asked about the philosophic elements he had identified in Yeats, Dr. Murray opined that it was never safe to say that Yeats had no knowledge of any given factor. He belonged to hermetic societies which imposed secrecy on their members, and had been greatly influenced by the Theosophical Movement -- which had also brought a realisation of his own spiritual traditions to a secular young Indian in London named Gandhi.

To a question about the attraction felt by the American artists mentioned for space and silence and how this related to the work of John Cage (one of whose compositions consisted of nothing but several minutes of silence), Dr. Murray replied that there was more to silence than the absence of sound; that one of the great silences in music was the pause after the storm in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. He referred to the words with which he had ended his lecture: "There is a world of difference between those who have nothing to say and those for whom there is nothing to be said. Strangers and lovers".

The vote of thanks -- to the entire Murray household! -- was proposed by Prof. Robert Morton, who said that few would be able to compete in covering over two and a half centuries of philosophy, art, literature, architecture and gardens. A garden, looked at after Dr. Murray had spoken about it, looked different -- not to speak of the Houses of Parliament! The point was well taken that asymmetry was not a sign of chaos; Japan itself is at the same time asymmetrical and orderly.