How Much Art History Can I Explore at the Local Library?

map of libraries in Georgia After not having a library card for years I decided to set up an account. It’s not that I don’t love and support public libraries, it just that I have moved about four times in the past six years. And, interestingly, each move has been within the central white area on this map.

Each county I have lived in has had its own system, unlike the massive PINES system I grew up with. PINES serves about 140 counties (in case you didn’t know, Georgia has 159 counties).

Over Labor Day weekend I finished going through a huge stack of books covering Japanese art / cultural history. The county I live in now is fairly large and, luckily, their interlibrary loan system is pretty efficient. Which is lucky because most of the books didn’t come from the branch near where I live.

I took notes from a little less than half of the books because they didn’t have much crossover with painting or nihonga. I thought I might share two highlights here. (At first I thought I could get away with a Top 5 List, but interesting stuff can be hard to reduce to a listicle sometimes.)

(1) Tarashikomi Technique ~ It is mentioned in passing when Stephen Addis writes about Tawaraya Sotatu’s Wind and Thunder Gods. 1

This led me online to find more information. Basically, when employing the Tarashikomi Technique, the artist will put down some water-based paint or just the paint binder (at the time, a special mix of rabbit skin glue called nikawa) and they would allow it to saturate the area, maybe letting it pool a bit. Then they apply a thinner paint or gold / silver / mica dust to the top of the saturated area. Once applied, the artist goes back in and manipulates the new, suspended layer to create organic forms and textures -- like clouds or patters on the surface of water.

Interestingly, this technique is currently used by some high-end nail artists. In this video you see that a regular lacquer nail polish base is applied to the nail. Then acrylic paint is applied while the polish is still wet. (I don’t really care about nail art. You won’t find anything like that on my Pinterest account. But it’s a pretty quick and easy way to see this technique at work.)

Herons by Hishida Shunso(2) Traditional Painting and Mōrō-ha ~ After the Meiji Restoration Ernest Fenollosa and his creative collaborator / translator, Okakura Tenshin were able to catalogue a lot of Japanese art and organize it into clear historical periods. This work lead to the establishment of the first Western-style museum in Japan. In 1884, they oversaw the start of the kanga-kai (Painting Appreciation Society) and dedicated it to preserving traditional painting and nihonga. 2

So many Japanese artists wanted to learn more about yōga – Western-style oil painting – that Fenollosa and Okakura lost their high-level academic positions within ten years. One interesting development to come out of all that focus on Eastern versus Western painting was mōrō-tai and the work of Hishida Shunsō. Many of Hishida’s contemporaries thought that his paintings – as well as those who studied, developed the mōrō-tai approach to painting - were “murky” or “vague” because objects in the paintings didn’t have the traditional black outlines around them. 3

Instead, Hishida was focused on creating 3D forms with light and shadow. I’d even argue that he used color to develop atmospheric perspective – not exclusively to give the illusion of distance, but also to illustrate the atmosphere that surrounds some of his landscapes. It’s super interesting, and I hope to find more information about The Obscurists.

This is the point at which I wrap things up before I begin rambling about all sorts of unconnected things. I will post a follow up to this tomorrow, including some exciting project updates.

1. Addis, Stephen. (1996) How to Look at Japanese Art. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
2. Munroe, Alexandra. (1994) Japanese Art Art 1945: Scream Against the Sky. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
3. Mason, Penelope. (1993) History of Japanese Art. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.