Zen Aesthetics and Art

Importance of Zen Aesthetics and Art for my Printmaking practice

I have been interested in Zen meditation – its focus on awareness of the here and now and the possibilities of choice – since being a teenager. In relation to art this awareness of the moment develops an ability to observe, then capture in a few flowing strokes the essence of one’s perception of something. That ability is based on years of practice and development of a sense of composition – focusing on tensions and imbalance rather than symmetry. Zen painting explores the tension between the accidental and imperfect and that flash of control.

In relation to printmaking it has particular relevance in monoprinting – markmaking on the plate as in the large monochrome monoprints of Yamamoto. But also the possible uses of watercolour inks and capturing the way they mix both on the plate and the paper.

Japanese Aesthetics (1 of 1)

Principles of Zen Aesthetics

Zen means “meditation.” Zen teaches that enlightenment is achieved through the profound realization that one is already an enlightened being. This awakening can happen gradually or in a flash of insight (as emphasized by the Soto and Rinzai schools, respectively). But in either case, it is the result of one’s own efforts. Deities and scriptures can offer only limited assistance.

Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on simplicity and the importance of the natural world generated a distinctive aesthetic, which is expressed by the terms wabi and sabi. influenced by Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, particularly acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things. These two amorphous concepts are used to express a sense of rusticity, melancholy, loneliness, naturalness, and age, so that a misshapen, worn peasant’s jar is considered more beautiful than a pristine, carefully crafted dish. While the latter pleases the senses, the former stimulates the mind and emotions to contemplate the essence of reality. In today’s Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to “wisdom in natural simplicity.” In art books, it is typically defined as “flawed beauty.”

In Search of Wabi Sabi with Marcel Theroux

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 Zen traces its origins to India, but it was formalized in China. Chan, as it is known in China, was transmitted to Japan and took root there in the thirteenth century. Chan was enthusiastically received in Japan, especially by the samurai class that wielded political power at this time, and it became the most prominent form of Buddhism between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The immigrant Chinese prelates were educated men, who introduced not only religious practices but also Chinese literature, calligraphy, philosophy, and ink painting to their Japanese disciples, who often in turn traveled to China for further study.

Many Japanese arts over the past thousand years have been  Such arts can exemplify a wabi-sabi aesthetic. Examples include:

A contemporary Japanese appraisal of this concept is found in the influential essay In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.

Sumi-e or Zen Ink Painting

You Tube videos on history of Chinese and Japanese ink painting

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Other Sources

Met Museum

Zen Buddhism and Art  Lieberman

Zen Painting Google images

Sumi-e or Japanese ink wash painting uses tonality and shading achieved by varying the ink density, both by differential grinding of the ink stick in water and by varying the ink load and pressure within a single brushstroke. Ink wash painting artists spend years practicing basic brush strokes to refine their brush movement and ink flow. In the hand of a master, a single stroke can produce astonishing variations in tonality, from deep black to silvery gray. Thus, in its original context, shading means more than just dark-light arrangement: It is the basis for the beautiful nuance in tonality found in East Asian ink wash painting and brush-and-ink calligraphy.In his classic book Composition, American artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow (1857–1922) wrote this about ink wash painting: “The painter …put upon the paper the fewest possible lines and tones; just enough to cause form, texture and effect to be felt. Every brush-touch must be full-charged with meaning, and useless detail eliminated. Put together all the good points in such a method, and you have the qualities of the highest art”.

See Wikipedia article. See articles from British Museum collection.

A key practise is ensō ( , “circle”?) – a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. The ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and mu (the void). Drawing ensō is a disciplined practice of Japanese ink painting—sumi-e (墨絵 “ink painting”?). The tools and mechanics of drawing the ensō are the same as those used in traditional Japanese calligraphy: One uses a brush ( fudé?) to apply ink to washi (a thin Japanese paper). Usually a person draws the ensō in one fluid, expressive stroke. When drawn according to the sōsho (草書?) style of Japanese calligraphy, the brushstroke is especially swift. Once the ensō is drawn, one does not change it. It evidences the character of its creator and the context of its creation in a brief, contiguous period of time. Drawing ensō is a spiritual practice that one might perform as often as once per day.

This spiritual practice of drawing ensō or writing Japanese calligraphy for self-realization is called hitsuzendō (筆禅道 “way of the brush”?). Ensō exemplifies the various dimensions of the Japanese wabi-sabi perspective and aesthetic: Fukinsei (asymmetry, irregularity), kanso (simplicity), koko (basic; weathered), shizen (without pretense; natural), yugen (subtly profound grace), datsuzoku (freedom), and seijaku (tranquility).

Today, ink monochrome painting is the art form most closely associated with Zen Buddhism. In general, the first Japanese artists to work in this medium were Zen monks who painted in a quick and evocative manner to express their religious views and personal convictions. Their preferred subjects were Zen patriarchs, teachers, and enlightened individuals. In time, however, artists moved on to secular themes such as bamboo, flowering plums, orchids, and birds, which in China were endowed with scholarly symbolism. The range of subject matter eventually broadened to include literary figures and landscapes, and the painting styles often became more important than personal expression.

It has also inspired many modern Japanese Abstract artists like Toko Shinoda and Western abstract artists like John Cage.

Series of interesting videos on a contemporary Western Zen ink painter: Nikolai Jelneronov

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