Hasegawa Tōhaku – Less is sometimes more

Asymmetry and minimalism have long been among the most common life-sytle mantras of the 21st century. They also somehow look pretty, these Japanese-style teacups – although grandma would probably turn around in her grave at the thought of having to exchange her Meissener porcelain for these unhangling vessels. But why the cozy “Many” is out and what the attraction of the “Half” and the “Little” is, one may not really be able to answer. And also I find myself with the umpteenth, annual outcry that I cannot free myself from the fashionable desire for “little”.

Hasegawa Tōhakus Kiefernwald (ca. 1590), one of my absolute favorite works of art, recently gave me the impulse to think about this strange aesthetic, which at the same time always seems somehow unfinished. On fine paper of more than 7 meters length Hasegawa painted with ink some pines apparently sinking into fog and otherwise – well – otherwise actually: “nothing”.

Even if this is supposedly only a design, probably for a wall or sliding door painting, the pine forest is one of Japan’s most important art treasures today. Because basically everything is there that makes a pine forest so special – and if one or the other is still missing something, there is enough room for imagination! The fact that the paper is hardly painted is neither coincidence nor artistic negligence. And on longer observation, it actually seems as if the pines were directing our gaze purposefully into the middle, as if they were telling us: “Look here, look into the void”.

Hasegawas pine forest is a Zen Buddhist picture

Zen is one of many forms of Buddhism which, unlike many other religions, has no fixed set of rules and does not refer to any particular scripture. Zen practitioners try to reach the state of “not” through long and conscious meditation. It is possible to run a little bit like with 360-degree glasses on cotton wool. In Zen Buddhism, emptiness has a deeper, religious meaning. This does not mean, however, that Zen paintings were worshipped as images of saints, but rather that they supported the viewer in the difficult meditative immersion.

It was the task of a Zen painter to cut off the superfluous in such a way that the motif still appears recognizable but strongly condensed, thus revealing its true form. A certain spiritual disposition might be helpful for this. However, the empty spaces undoubtedly bring dynamism into the picture – everything becomes and disappears with the viewer’s perception. The Zen painters got their motifs exclusively from nature – mountains, forests and rivers were particularly popular – because it was equated with the divine and the human inner life. In fact, for a long time the Japanese had no real word for “nature”, as they saw themselves as part of their environment and did not have to distinguish themselves from it by any terms.

A Zen picture is usually monochrome and made of ink. In the 14th century, Japanese Zen monks copied ink painting from the Chinese, who calligraphed with ink on silk or paper. Of course, only black ink is used for a Zen-Buddhist ink picture, as it looks particularly simple and simple. The essential characteristics of Zen painting also include asymmetry, simplicity, naturalness, self-evidence, detachment, silence and tranquillity.

Not so easy, then

In Europe, the preference for the “incomplete” did not develop until much later. Until the 19th century, the motto was “Completely or not at all”. For a long time, even sketches and drawings were not regarded as “art”, but exclusively as private aids. Zen artists like Hasegawa can therefore probably be described as the forefathers of today’s minimalist culture.

Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610) worked mainly in Kyoto, then the imperial capital and cultural Mecca of Japan. Not an easy task for a 30-year-old migrant from the province: the famous Kano artists had built a true empire in the city, which they understandably did not like to dispute. So he first made it through with Buddhist pictures for monasteries and smaller part-time jobs as a dyer. Hagesawa did not join a larger school of painting, which was common at that time, especially as it made it much easier for him to enter the world of work. However, his artistic stubbornness soon paid off.