Friday, December 23, 2005

Negative Space in Asian Art and Cooking

If you came to read about food and cooking, bear with me in this post. I'll get to that subject in a few lines.

Recently I visited the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco to see a new survey of Japanese painting called Traditions Unbound. It features work from a group of Kyoto painters who---because of a political realignment within Japan---were able to break away from the rigid traditions of the ruling painting school in the 17th and 18th centuries and create their own style. I admit that Japanese painting had never been one of my favorite areas---I have seen too many screen paintings of The Tale of Genji, I suppose---but this exhibition was astonishing. Although most works are paintings of black ink on a gold or wheat-colored background, the artists were able to create dynamic worlds with their brushstrokes. A painting of a marsh and birds by Goshun (Matsumura Gekkei) made me feel like I was there and could see and hear the willows swaying in a morning breeze. A painting of a crane and waves by Okyo was also stunning (the less interesting half of the painting).

Now to the connection to food, tenuous as it may be...

The exhibition will include two collections of vegetable paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1715-1800). The first one to be exhibited is one of his most famous: a recreation of the Buddha's attainment of Nirvana ("parinirvana") with the Buddha and his followers depicted as vegetables (image here). At the time of the painting, the Japanese had a standard way of illustrating the Buddha's death, with the Buddha lying on a platform with his head to the left, a grove of trees in the background, disciples and bodhisattvas surrounding the Buddha, and the Buddha's mother (Queen Maya) visiting from the heavens. In his painting, Jakuchu represented the figures with vegetables and fruits. The commentary on this work in the exhibition catalog says that Jakuchu's intentions were never fully known: was this a light-hearted parody or a statement of his religious beliefs? Various sects in Japanese Buddhism believed that all beings---including plant and animals---possessed the Buddha nature. Perhaps Jakuchu was reaffirming his devotion in the painting. Alternatively, since his family was in the vegetable business, it was possibly a memorial for a recently deceased relative. Note that this painting will be on display only from December 19 to January 8.

Starting January 11th, the exhibit will have set of 12 large paintings of vegetables in various states of freshness and decay by Jakuchu with dimensions of 33 cm across and 123 cm high.

The second connection to food is the concept of "negative space." Japanese painters and printmakers were (and still are) masters in the use of negative space, which is the area around the main subject(s) that enhance the effect of the artwork. For example, unpainted areas or a sparse background as in Wyeth's Christina's World can heighten a mood or say something about the subject's condition. In the world, of cooking, "negative space" also has a place. For example, one could argue that various dishes in a meal can each contain negative space that plays off of the flavors and textures in the other dishes. In other words, what isn't there is important and can enhance what is there. Another concept that the Japanese paintings share with cooking is restraint, i.e., less is more. Sometimes the simplest preparation can be the finest.

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm with extended evening hours every Thursday until 9:00 pm. Closed Mondays, major holidays (New Years Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas), and during certain large scale Civic Center Events (please call for details). Because of the fragility of the artworks and requirements of some of the owners, the exhibit is undergoing a changeover on January 10. The first set of art is shown until January 8, the museum is closed for the changeover, and second set is on display from January 11 to February 26.

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1 comment:

Sury said...

Definitely a post I want to read. I am very interested in food history/culture. But right now, came here to invite you to play in the "You are What You Eat" meme. See this link:
Please play, Marc! Also wishing you a wonderful Holiday season!