Sunday, November 29, 2009

Goethe and Japan

The title of this post is actually a teaser, for Goethe was really unfamiliar with Japan. From the beginning of the 17th century until 1853 Japan was closed off to most of the outside world, aside from limited trading relations with China and the Netherlands at the trading port of Nagasaki. Thus, Goethe died (1832) just before the end of the long period of national isolation. By the 1850s Japan mania was beginning among Western artists. Japanese prints, for instance, had a great influence on the development of Impressionism. Traditional Japanese art owes much to Chinese art. Though Goethe turned his attention to Chinese literature in the 1820s, and published the collection Chinesisch-deutsche Jahres- and Tageszeiten, he seemed unfamiliar with Chinese art.

Knowing Goethe's classical preferences in art, I am thus of two minds whether he would have appreciated the fine works on display at The Japan Society here in Manhattan. My friend Suzanne was visiting New York over the Thanksgiving weekend and phoned to ask if I would accompany her to a "textile show" at the Society. Little did I know that it was a major exhibition of the works of Serizawa Keiskuke (1895-1984), designated a "living national treasure" in his lifetime.

The works were imaginative and eye-catching, in the true sense of that word, and often drawing on Japanese and Okinawan folk tradition, then (after World War II) absorbing something like a modernist aesthetic. Since I spent several years living in Japan, I was also reminded of the very different Japanese color sense, a preference for bold, unmodulated colors. I can't help feeling that Goethe would have found this stencil print very jarring. On the other hand, he would have been compelled to try to understand it. It's a shame that Goethe wrote his essays on art and literature before the effects of the "world literature" that he envisioned came to pass. These essays often come across as pedestrian, indeed pedantic, an effect that seems dictated by the narrow nature of the mostly European subjects he wrote about. An exception, of course, is Goethe's foray into the literature and culture of the Middle East, with The West-East Divan, in particular the notes that accompany it. With Japan's opening in the 1850s, however, the era of "world literature," with its manifold possibilities of artistic and literary exchange, moved beyond its Eurocentric source. Interestingly, Islamic and Chinese cultures, which Goethe did explore, have been resistant to absorbing the "universalist" ideas implicit in the notion of world literature. Long-standing imperialist cultures have their own ideas of universality.

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