Hokusai’s Empty Spaces: a Lesson

Hokusai: Mad about Painting at the National Museum of Asian Art closes on January 9, 2022, so noting a few final thoughts on the exhibit seems fair. On Sundays, I pass these two paintings:       

This comparison is all but impossible—the two works connected by nothing other than personal preference—but let’s start easy. They are both paintings. They both have fairly restrained palettes, and each artist pays attention to line. After that, all bets are off.

These two works have more in common, although Corot’s Forest of Founatinebleau (1834) was painted within a dozen years of Hokusai’s Fisherman. Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) culminates a move in western art toward a kind of purity of effort. The subject is the painting itself—not the woman reading ensconced in nature—or even nature itself. No “meaning” interposes between the viewer and the image. Or any (and every) meaning is available; whatever you bring, the painting will match. “Take that!” it declares and sticks a finger in your eye. Corot’s painting also fills the frame, and we can decide whether the young woman reading by the brook is ignoring the world or opening a world. Either way, Corot, like Pollock, presents a world.

Hokusai’s painting does not. There is more unpainted area than painted. I run screaming from declarations of “negative capability,” or the value of stillness in Japanese art. I appreciate that the Hokusai show features paintings not by Hokusai to show what set him apart. The other works are busier, neither empty nor still. Besides, not all of Hokusai’s paintings are as open as The Fisherman (the fully inked prints from the One Hundred Poets series surge with color). However, as a rule, Hokusai leaves us some space.

Sometimes that space echoes with the noise of a crowd.

Another time that space is ready to be filled with storm.

Writers play with time and space too. The easy examples are Hamlet, when Shakespeare skirts away months in the course of the play’s running, or Macbeth, when the vast awfulness of Macbeth’s reign of terror happens in some interstitial realm. And nothing, when it happens in Beckett, is the point, and it is a crushing kind of nothingness.

What Hokusai manages is different. In part, it’s because he is a draftsman and a painter, and his work feels drawn as much as painted. But that’s not all. Often the main subjects of his painting occupy only a part of the field of the picture—the Thunder God hovers high, a wave, as water must, is bound to the bottom of the frame.

(Artist) Katsushika Hokusai

Nonetheless, Hokusai allows an image to float on its own. I find that when I look at something—a tree or a bird—and decide to photograph it, the photo is a poor representation of what I thought I saw. The tree is diminished in a landscape, and the bird disappears in a sea of grass. Hokusai’s paintings are like the kind of selective vision we have when we look at the world. We focus on one thing and dismiss—visually tuning out—what does not catch our attention. The photograph gives the lie to our selective vision; Hokusai lets us focus.

When he portrays a man gazing at a pot of peonies, he includes the man, the .pot of peonies, and the bit of earth on which the pot rests. Was the rest of the world there? Yes, of course, it was. In the same way that his screened mural of the two parties—one raucous, one contemplative—shows how we want to focus and cannot, his paintings are an exercise in focusing on what we might miss. Unlike a still life by Cezanne or Van Gogh, Hokusai directs us to look at the man who looks at the flowers—and the flowers. The Fisherman looks out at the ocean. The girl holds a letter behind her back and looks away from the evidence of what? We don’t know.

Hokusai shows us how we look. We might categorize what he does as minimalist, but I think that is a missed assessment. He focuses on what he sees, and he engages us to help us focus.

When we write—and this was bound to get around to writing—we write in the tradition of Corot, building a world, and the reader (the subject of Corot’s painting) is often dwarfed by that world. The world can do that. Hokusai shows us the value of focus. Choose the detail, the significant relationship, the single gesture. We have enough to distract us already. Focus.

The Reader

A woman reads in the lower left-hand corner of the painting. She reads at the side of the bend in the brook under the shadow of a tree growing on the opposite bank. In the center, a patch of light bursts from the sky off in the distance, and two figures—are they fauns?—sit in the shadows underneath trees. She is smaller than the trees in the Forest of Fontainebleau, smaller even than the stone that juts out over the stream. Because she is human, she draws our attention. She is not nude. Her gaze does not capture ours; she is reading. 

The Forest of Fontainbleau, 1834
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
National Gallery of Art

She is reading, and perhaps we would scold her for not paying attention to nature. “Look at the trees!” we might exhort, much in the same way that we scold friends on cellphones. “Look up!” How little things change in 200 years.

And yet, that rock that the stream has not worn away is like a fulcrum; it balances the reading woman and the rest of the world. Literature vs. Nature. Or maybe a portrayal of nature balanced against nature itself.  Much like me, today, at the museum. I could be walking on a trail, along a beach, or on a sidewalk that borders the Thames. I am not. I am in the National Gallery, looking at paintings and writing about what I see. 

Perhaps you could read the painting as a dream: the forest is what the woman reads about. Everything above the thin sward of grass where she reads is the thought ignited by the words in her book. Or perhaps Corot wants to tell us that a book has the same weight as everything else in the painting. That may be a warning as well—literature (what kind of literature? genre fiction? epic poetry? something Pynchon hasn’t written yet?) is going to replace nature.

I think of it as a challenge. Write something that can match nature. I love the made thing, the work of hands, whether it is an almond croissant or a cathedral. When we make beautiful things, we transcend the ingredients of our craft. And this: write something that keeps her reading. Yes, writing is about me—my words! my vision!—but what else matters more than that woman by the brook? I write for you.