Is East only East and West only West?

News from 10/16/2017

The New Neighbors have arrived on the Museumsinsel. Giving an evening lecture in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Yuko Nakama, a Japanese expert on Caspar David Friedrich, inquired into the huge popularity of the great master of German Romanticism in Japan, analyzing the similarities and differences that emerge when his works are juxtaposed with Japanese folding screens.

Japanische Stellschirme im Dialog mit Caspar David Friedrich in der Alten Nationalgalerie
Japanische Stellschirme im Dialog mit Caspar David Friedrich in der Alten Nationalgalerie © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Two folding screens with ink paintings of landscapes, dating from the Edo period, are currently on display in the Caspar David Friedrich Room, turning the heart of the venerable Alte Nationalgalerie into a kind of laboratory. It's a way of testing how these “new neighbors“, on their way to the Humboldt Forum, appear when shown together with masterpieces of Romanticism. The essence of the experiment, said the director of the Alte Nationalgalerie, Ralph Gleis, is a “joint lesson in seeing.“ 

What can be seen there was elucidated in an evening talk given by Prof. Dr. Yuko Nakama from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, who is an expert on Caspar David Friedrich. Under the title “The Image of the Landscape in the Works of C. D. Friedrich and Japanese Masters: A Comparative Study“, she looked at “'our' Friedrich through Japanese eyes,“ as Gleis put it in his introduction. 

Nakama first explained the function of empty space in Japanese art: originally, it represented the omnipresent life force, “ki“. In the course of time, empty space also came to be used for representing meteorological phenomena such as mist or vapor, as well as for conveying moods and expressing deeply felt emotions. On one of folding screens, titled View of the West Lake, you can see very well how the effect of the empty space is exploited to perfection. The use of empty space in a composition become one of the most important aesthetic parameters in Japanese painting for many generations. 

Japanese aesthetic tradition was based on nature and it evolved by integrating human figures into natural surroundings, according to Nakama. The fondness for Friedrich's landscape paintings in Japan stems from precisely this background. 

On the other hand, the awe of nature that is expressed in Friedrich's landscapes is not familiar to the Japanese. The Japanese attitude towards nature is rather based on the sensory perception of the natural world without any theoretical reflection, Nakama continued. As an example of this, she cited Hokusai's world-famous woodcut, Great Wave Off Kanagawa. In his interpretation of the waves, Hokusai focuses more on the dynamics of nature than on the danger to the boats. Friedrich takes a very different approach in the lowering marine landscape of his Monk By the Sea, aiming to evoke the sublime emotions that overwhelm us in the presence of existential forces. 

“The affinity and similarity of the subjects, and the composition of the landscapes in the oeuvres of Friedrich and Japanese painters are above and beyond cultural differences,“ Nakama continued. “Friedrich, who experiences nature in terms of daily and seasonal cycles, meets with deep resonance among Japanese art-lovers. The longing to be in the midst of nature is reflected directly in the artistic expression of both cultures.“

In the discussion that followed the talk, experts from three different disciplines assessed the “New Neighbors“ project in the Alte Nationalgalerie from their own professional perspectives. 

This particular juxtaposition was the idea of Alexander Hofmann, the curator of Japanese art at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum). It was he who decided which folding screens to exhibit, and he expressed his delight with the result, commenting: “It is exciting to move into the temple of German art in Berlin with non-European culture!“ 

Ralph Gleis, the director of the Alte Nationalgalerie, was also highly enthusiastic because, among other things, “New Neighbors“ allows the museum to position itself as a place of cultural exchange and a place of research. He had also been moved by Ms Nakama's almost physical reaction to the pictures by Friedrich: a cry of joy and transports of delight, such as he had only observed in a few other visitors so far. 

Kristina Mösl, who as the head restorer at the Alte Nationalgalerie has painstakingly examined the Friedrich paintings in the course of restoration, also saw technical parallels between them and Japanese painting: the subtle layering in his early work recalls the delicate application of color in water-based ink painting, which is traditional in Asia. 

There seem to have been direct influences as well: the trees of his Abbey in the Oak Wood , with their branches gnarled like spectral fingers, have something of a Far-Eastern – even a Japanese – aura. This could be a consequence of the frequent visits that Friedrich made to the state art collections in Dresden, where he looked at specimens of Chinese porcelain, among other things. 

The aesthetic of the void, so appreciated in Asian art, is also evident in Friedrich's oeuvre: “The Monk By the Sea is all about omission – in many respects,“ said Mösl. To begin with, it epitomizes solitude by dispensing with a pictorial motif, which was a revolutionary development in the art of the time. This omission is also evident on a physical level: during the restoration of the painting, it became apparent that beneath the surface, Friedrich’s draft contains motifs such as three large sailing ships, almost none of which were included in the final composition.

The use of omission is the most Japanese quality of all, explained Alexander Hofmann. People preferred to concentrate intensely on just a few motifs. “That a sixteenth century artist feels able to paint nothing but a few pine trees on a pair of folding screens speaks of considerable self-assurance,“ he remarked.

Hofmann went on to say that Japanese culture rejects any approach to painting that merely imitates the appearance of natural surroundings. Artists are rather expected to depict nature as a living cosmos – with which human beings, in the person of the observer, can be as one. The sense of being in harmony with nature is a concept that also appears in Friedrich's work, Hofmann continued. Unlike Friedrich, however, Japanese artists did not aim to paint a complete portrait of nature. Instead of a detailed visual study of the sky, for example, they would suggest natural phenomena such as wind or mist. 

As the host of the event, Gleis concluded the evening with the observation that the interpretation of nature in art is like a network of invisible threads linking people around the globe. Their need to commune with nature and transform it through art is essentially similar, even though there are many differences in how they do it – and not all the questions that arise can ultimately be answered. “New Neighbors“ enables dialogue through confrontation, principally as a way of stimulating us to ask such questions – and of ensuring that they continue to be discussed. 

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