Wednesday, 9 October 2013

On Chinese Landscape Painting and Japanese Gardens. Part 4/5


Yohaku, and the use of ‘empty space’

Li Shi (李氏)12thC Imaginary tour through Xiao-xiang
Composition in Chinese painting is pre-eminently a problem of placing objects in relationship to each other, so that the intermediate spaces become eloquent and aesthetically significant. It is the same with gardens except as noted above the creator is utilising three dimensions rather than two. Thus the space (‘emptiness’) that lies between the various elements becomes of great importance. For it is in the separation of elements, the space that constitutes the distance between them, that also serves to give definition to the forms themselves. François Cheng writes[1]: “Far from being a kind of no-man’s land that would imply neutralization or compromise, emptiness makes possible the process of interiorization and transformation through which each thing actualises its sameness and otherness and, in so doing, attains totality.”
Loquats and Mountain Bird
Southern Song Dynasty 1127-1279
Emptiness is a concept at the very heart of Chinese painting, and is of supreme importance to painters, it is also a philosophical notion that has very deep roots in Chinese Taoism[2], as well as in Buddhism. The use of emptiness allows transformation and change into a composition thereby enhancing the concept of movement and the transcendence of stasis in a composition. In landscape terms, fullness can be expressed as mountains, and emptiness as valleys. Without the valleys there would be no mountains, and without the mountains there would be no valleys, the two are wholly interdependent. In painting terms the empty spaces are immeasurable, born of spirit and dream. Emptiness is not a negation, rather it brings definition and clarity, it also allows change and transition to unfold.



To garden creators, empty space (yohaku, in Japanese) is of equal importance, especially in karesansui gardens, but it is also extensively used in all the garden forms. One could go as far to say that it is a defining characteristic of composition in a Japanese garden. Kitayama Yasuo, a contemporary garden creator in Japan, in conversation with the author explained that creating a garden was a process of beginning with a ‘solid space’ and ‘by carving into this block, I release the various elements, so that they may be alive and express their individuality.”[3] Yohaku creates the conditions for movement to occur and energy to circulate in the composition.

Yohaku is related to the fundamental notions of yin and yang, which will be further gone into later in the discussion of essence and the landscape. In paintings yin and yang is most obviously expressed in the depiction of light in the composition, and as most paintings were created using India ink, this means the varying of tonality with which the ink was used to express distance. When one looks into a Japanese garden it becomes evident that there is great play made of using contrasting opposites. The hardness of stone contrasted against the fluidity of water, light and dark leaf textures, architectural space and garden space, enclosure and openness. In the paintings emphasis is placed on edges of objects, the outlines of mountains, rocks or trees are defined by a darkening of the ink. This contrast serves to sharpen the form, giving it greater definition and a visual ‘bite’. All these are examples of yin and yang in action in a garden composition. The movement from one to another, the contrasting of textures, all create rhythm and flow in a garden composition, also a visual richness for the eye to be constantly engaging with and moving between. This ensures a deepening of engagement of the viewer with what he or she is observing.

There is a style of painting in Japan, that originated in China in the hands of artists such as Wang Wei ( 王維  ca.699 - ca.759), and was brought to a peak in Japan by Sesshū Tōyō, which is known as habokuga (破墨). In these paintings the ink was literally at times splashed or thrown across the surface creating a ‘broken’ effect, which captured great vigour and spontaneity, often with large areas of empty space represented. These paintings would seem to herald the development of the karesansui garden in the Zen temples of Kyoto in particular. The garden of Ryõan-ji  is an example of this, and the style has endured into the modern day. Habokuga also influenced the creation of bonkei (trayscapes, 盆景), which were very popular in Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries. For the monks of the Five Mountain Zen temples in Kyoto liked to play with the notion of illusion in art as a means of breaking the bonds of attachment to an object or idea. In this sense to create a landscape or represent mountains and water in a tiny space was as natural to them as seeing landscape scenery represented in Nature. All artistic creations were seen as being “a subjective projection into the world of an artificial reality.”[4]

Sesshu- Autumn Landscape.

This latter aspect is exploited most fully in the karesansui form of garden, as very often in the karesansui garden the components of the garden scenery are pared down to the minimum required. The garden of Ryõan-ji with its fifteen stones set in a courtyard bare of anything other than raked gravel, is a garden realised as if a habokuga painting. The landscape is sketched in with fewest possible brush strokes, this deliberate abstention of form, allows the maximum degree of engagement of the imagination of the viewer. It is also the case that many karesansui garden arrangements are ‘read’ sequentially, most usually from right to the left side, as if one were ‘reading’ a scroll painting, unwinding with one hand and rewinding with the other.[5]
Norwich Cathedral, England
Ryoan-ji, Kyoto
Kaetsu Centre, Cambridge, England





[1] Empty and Full, The Language of Chinese Painting. François Cheng, Shambala1994
[2] Lao Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching: “I do my utmost to attain emptiness; I hold firmly to stillness. The myriad creatures all rise together and I watch their return. The teeming creatures all return to their separate roots. Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness. This is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny.” ‘Tao Te Ching’, Lao Tsu. Translated by D.C. Lau. Penguin Classics 1963
[3] In conversation with the author. Kyoto 2004.
[4] Joseph D. Parker, ‘Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan’.
[5] In the case of Ryõan-ji, it must be said that the author finds a more coherent reading of the garden by scanning from left to right.


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