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The masterful silence of Japanese drawings

The Japanese language has no native word to distinguish drawing from painting. To draw was to paint, to paint was to draw. Large or small, loosely sketched or more carefully delineated, the result was always basically the same: a brush loaded with ink touched paper and an abbreviated transcription of reality or imagination was given form in a few sensitively placed lines and washes.

One hundred forty of such works are on view here at Japan House Gallery. Drawn from 43 major public and private collections in Japan, Europe, America, and Israel, "Japanese Drawings of the 18th and 19th Centuries" includes 21 drawings by Hokusai -- one of the world's truly great draftsmen -- as well as sketches and studies by many of the other outstanding Japanese artists of the period.

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Selected by Jack Hillier, the noted authority and writer on Japanese art, this exhibition should give Western viewers a clearer look into the more personal aspects of Japanese art.

Often dashed off in a few seconds or minutes, these drawings show the artists in the first flush of their creative enthusiasms. Some were produced to accompany letters, others were related to poetry, and a few served as preparatory drawings for paintings or wood-block prints. But all reflect delight in what ink, brush, paper, and skill could accomplish.

The skills of Japanese drawing are masterfully silent and unspoken. They lie in the spaces between forms as well as in the forms themselves, in what is not revealed about a face, an animal, or a mountain landscape. They exist in the way objects are often drawn with the ink of only one brush-load so as not to break the integrity of the form by breaking the continuity of the line. And especially, they are most mysteriously present in the exquisite placement of line against mass.

This latter quality is beautifully demonstrated in Mibata Joryu's humorous "Three Monkeys." Without the precisely characterized lines defining the animals' faces, feet, and hands, the ink washes would be indecipherable. With them, the washes quite clearly become the bodies of three rather disgruntled young monkeys.

Altogether too much nonsense has been written about the difficulties Westerners have with Eastern art. In my experience that just isn't so. If there is any problem it lies not in our immediate response to the art but in our difficulty in equating what we see with out difficulty in equating what we see with our Western concepts of greatness and importance. We are so accustomed to the notion that color, size, and monumentality are essential to great art that we find it difficult to give our serious attention to small black-and-white pictures of everyday things and events. And that is true even if we enjoy these works of art.

Ourm great masters would not have "wasted" their time and genius portraying a cuckoo flying against the sun, a few ordinary blades of grass, a cat stalking a butterfly, a snail in bamboo, or a postman falling over his bag.

And yet, if we forget our Western preconceptions about art for a moment and enter into the spirit of such works, we quickly discover that they are much more than small and insignificant sketches of small and insignificant things.

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They are important because they generously portray the intimacies and the nuances of life. To find beauty and meaning in the way a snail crawls along a bamboo leaf, and then to distill that experience in a few lines exquisitely balanced against the white spaces of the paper, is to affirm the beauty and the preciousness of life. Keen observation, sensitive placement of objects in space , spontaneity of execution, close attention to the humble things of life, all these are just other ways of the virtues of style, tact, loyalty, wit, and compassion.

The simple and apparently splashy style of drawing encountered in most of these drawings is about as difficult a style as any to master. But we don't have to understand the nuances of a pictorial style in order to respond directly to what that style communicates. Do we have to understand the particular skills involved in Hanabusa Itcho's "New Year Dancer" in order to catch its mood of joyful exuberance?

The pictorial language may be a bit different than ours, but it expresses a human event and emotion. And, since it does so masterfully -- meaning that the style transmits the idea and the motion clearly and directly -- we get the "message" of the picture even though it was executed about 300 years ago and by a member of a society very unlike ours.

My personal reaction to the drawings in this exhibition was delight, a feeling apparently shared by my fellow viewers whose smiling faces indicated their owners were having little trouble grasping what these works were all about.

The show will remain on view at the Japan House Gallery here until June 1 and will then travel to The St. Louis Art Museum (June 20-Aug. 24) and the Portland, Oregon, Art Museum (Sept. 16-Oct. 26).


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