Japanese and American Art

HakusaiMany recent discussions of the “end of nature” have stimulated new thinking about our relation with nature. That debate along with our increasing detachment from the outdoors invite reflection on our general cultural orientation toward nature, negative and positive. The way visual artists approach nature may help us develop a more nuanced view of what nature means to us and how we engage nature in our way of life. Both Japanese and American Artists seem to have an affinity for depicting nature and reflecting on the power of nature.  However the Japanese have a particular reverence for nature based on Taoism and the Shinto religion while Americans have their own approach that is more pragmatic, reflective of our pioneer experience.

One work to look at for its views on nature, is the famous print “Great Wave off Kanagawa” done by the well known Japanese print maker Hokusai. Here in the print one can see a giant wave breaking over hard working fishermen who are engulfed by the wave’s action. We can actually see the details of the froth of the wave and the inhuman beauty of its curve. The giant wave seems to show a frightening aspect to nature yet the image of the wave is also fascinating in its intricate beauty. As many art historians have pointed out, the wave’s curves represent a balance between the yin and yang forces. In other words, there is an inherent order and peace within the dramatic energy of the wave and by implication in all of nature. This is the kind of vision of the interconnection of parts in nature that ecologists such as Aldo Leopold have found. We are encouraged to feel a certain appreciation of the order of nature by Hokusai’s view of the ocean but balance that with a realistic fear.

Herring Fishing Winslow Homer

On the other hand, the American Painter, Winslow Homer, depicts nature as the movement of a harsh set of forces that are inherently opposed to man. In his painting, “Herring Fishing,” the old fisherman and boy pull in the nets during the storm putting all their strength into the task. The ocean itself is depicted as violently restless. The waves break against the boat with relentless force. In contrast to the Hokusai painting, there is no respite from the dangerous force of the waves - only conflict. There seems to be no order in nature for the American painter- just pure force. This view may reflect many of the materialist, positivist views of nature in the late 19th century.
One view of nature is that of the Japanese artist who encourages us to seek harmony with nature while the American painter asks us to engage in the struggle against nature. Which view is most useful to us? I think the Japanese may help us imagine nature in a way that invites us to achieve harmony with its order. However Winslow Homer is correct in portraying the impersonal forces we are dealing with when working with nature. They both have something useful to tell us about how to orient ourselves to nature. Their contrasting views enrich our understanding of nature.