It's been fascinating, these past two weekends, spending long stretches of Sunday afternoons coaxing books off shelves at the TCDC (Thailand Creative and Design Center) and teasing the pages of huge, heavy, hardcover art books of an Asia-centric collection. Here's my own little self-study course, "designed" by confluences of personal interest and whim, on mostly modern art and photography of various cities and cultures in Asia (Afghanistan, India and Japan). A piecemeal, scattered and relatively arbitrary selection of subjects and styles and time periods:
• All one hundred of Hiroshige's ukiyo-e woodblock print series "100 Views of Edo" (1853)
• Luke Powell's "Afghan Gold," landscape photography of Afghanistan from 1973-2003
• Raghubir Singhs' "River of Colour," street photography of India over the past half century
What caught my attention beyond the artwork is the introduction and explanation of the works, elucidating the context of the artist's life within the tides of political, economic, social history, and how they spun that into what became aesthetic history — the world as understood and expressed by humans in a specific time and place. What mythology and lineage did the artists draw inspiration from? What ethical questions did they grappled with around power and representation in their art practice? There are so many unexpected conversations between these three volumes!
ETHICS OF CULTURAL DISTANCE + CROSS-POLLINATION IN ART
In depicting the foreign country of Afghanistan, Luke Powell writes the mission statement:
"I tried to work the way one should approach an ancient forest, recording but not disturbing things, and I chose to work independently as an artist, not as a scholar or a journalist. I went out each day open to what Afghanistan could show me, instead of searching for ways to illustrate ideas that I already had in mind."
You can see this respectfully dispassionate ethos reflected in his photographs — views at a distance, beautiful gradients of light and shadow on country roads and the shapes of mountains full of majesty and awe, the coexistence between people and the grandeur of a harsh physical landscape. Sometimes there appears a horseback figure, or kids flying kites, or a veiled woman stooped doing laundry, but Powell writes that this is largely to show scale, a technique Powell actually says he borrowed from his studies of ukiyo-e and Song Dynasty paintings. In fact, Powell specifically cropped his photos to the proportion and size of Hiroshige (1:15)! In Hiroshige’s works, too, the horizon comes in layers: "Hiroshige unfolds the whole range of his vision: the lofty and sublime are shown side by side with the profane and everyday" — for example, a fish market in the foreground, a shogun's castle in the distance, and the snow-laden Mt. Fuji in the distance.
While Hiroshige’s dispassionate distance comes from the influence of Zen Buddhism in ukiyo-e or “floating world” art, for Powell it could be limited social access, as an American photographing in rural Afghanistan. (However, Powell deserves some credit: living there three decades made him pretty fluent in the language and culture, and he studied the religion and history deeply. Powell sometimes returned to show his subjects their printed photos, but this was often difficult in rural areas.)
Meanwhile, Raghubir Singh depicted his own country of India as a supposed cultural insider (though from an elite family whose reality overlaps little with many of his fellow Indians). As a street photographer, his aim is to photograph passionately: “[In Calcutta] my subject is never beauty as seen in abjection, but the lyric poetry inherent in the life of India: the high range of the colouratura of everyday India. Those delicious notes, those high and low notes, they do not exist in the Western world,” he declares.
Singh's self-declared mission is, rather, adopting the western medium of photography into his lineage of Indian aesthetics. Singh invokes the words of his heroes and predecessors:
“Tagore wrote in the teenage Satyajit Ray's diary: ‘I have spent a fortune travelling to distant shores and looked at lofty mountains and boundless oceans, and yet, I haven't found time to take a few steps from my own home, to look at a single dew drop, on a single blade of grass.’ The India I set out to photograph was not the India reflected in the lenses of the British colonial photographers but the India in the dewdrop that Tagore talked of … I had to dive into the depth of the dew drop in order to know not only the ecological and moral foundations of India, but also that other important aspect of the inner source: the art and culture of the country. Simultaneously, I had to dive into the history of photography — wholly Western — as well as the arts of many faraway places.”
Singh declares the “four cornerstones of the continuous culture of India” to be: “beauty, nature, humanism and spirituality.” His earliest artistic memory is “a folk singer's mastery over his uneven voice. In those mysterious moments between dusk and darkness on a small and deserted Rajasthan railway platform…" (what a beautiful description!). Meanwhile, Singh cites the Western lineage of photography as: “landscape, light and shade, chiaroscuro, and the street as subject.” Even so, he borrowed from this vocabulary, especially the photographer Cartier-Bresson, whom he claims was “the first artist-photographer to look at Indians as individuals, investing his photos with what Satyajit Ray called ‘a palpable humanism.’” (My own opinion here, but don’t Luke Powell’s photographs also exemplify this landscape chiaroscuro and ooze ‘a palpable humanism’?)
Even so, Singh defends borrowing from other cultures in art. He responds to Indian nationalists who condemn borrowing in art that they “do not understand that India, like the Ganges meeting the sea and therefore another world, has a thousand mouths.” This mutual redefinition of style by the meeting of two cultures can be seen in Hiroshige's time as well. I was really excited to learn that one of my favorite impressionist paintings, “Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge” by Whistler was directly based on Hiroshige's “Bamboo Quay by Kyobashi Bridge.” Whistler avidly collected Japanese prints, and Van Gogh directly re-interpreted several of Hiroshige's paintings, including “Plum Park in Kameido” and “Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge.” Meanwhile, Hiroshige had incorporated western notions of vanishing point perspective into his own paintings as well, breaking from his Japanese predecessors. My take-away, which my friend Ningyi has said often: cultural purity in art is usually an absurd idea.
A MORE COMPLICATED, COLORFUL AND RESPLENDENT HUMAN HISTORY
Another unexpected parallel — both Hiroshige's woodblock prints and Luke Powell's photographs depict a relative idyll, a society in a period directly prior to rapid change brought about by American intervention in foreign affairs. For Luke Powell, it was leading up to the American invasion of Afghanistan. (He consciously decided to leave out his more journalistic "photographs of burned-out buildings and maimed people," dedicating this volume solely to Afghanistan's beauty.) Hiroshige's commissioned "100 Views of Edo" series was made just three years after American commodore Matthew Perry landed in Japan demanding the opening of ports. Hiroshige nods to this reality in subtle visual cues, such as cannons erected around Edo Bay in one of his landscapes. While I’ve seen America’s actions on the world stage unfold from a mostly American perspective, here is what history looked like from the other side.
Even as both portray the coming encroachment of American hegemony, militarily and economically, the pieces created for me a portal to the splendor of other civilizational golden eras: Luke Powell notes that under the Timurids (1370-1506), Herat had “a population five times larger than London or Paris,” and was “one of the most important artistic centers of the world with colleges, libraries, public baths, monumental architecture, and painters like Bihzad.” The Taschen book on Hiroshige mentions that in 1725, the population of Edo was “over a million, the largest of any city in the world.” Even though art history in America is often taught in an overwhelmingly eurocentric way (my AP art history class in high school was all European, with a few units called 'ABE' — literally 'Art Beyond Europe'), it reminds me that the period in which European civilizations became so dominant is relatively recent: just a few hundred years in a much, much longer and more complicated, colorful and resplendent human history.
A UNIVERSAL TENDENCY TOWARD AESTHETIC HARMONY
And perhaps the most salient quote to wrap up my thoughts is a word from Sri Aurobindo, invoked by Singh in the introduction to his book:
Three books, three artists, three cultural and historical contexts, each stricken with passion for dearly beloved people and landscapes, and moved to immortalize them, ultimately weaving three distinct visions of a universal tendency toward beauty.