Beauty for Beauty's Sake

Wabi Sabi and the Aesthetic Movement

13 APRIL 2014,
Albert Moore, "Midsummer," 1887, Oil on canvas, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.Courtesy of Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, and Windam Inc., Tokyo, Japan.
Albert Moore, "Midsummer," 1887, Oil on canvas, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.Courtesy of Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, and Windam Inc., Tokyo, Japan.

Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The essence of beauty in Japanese design, art, and cultural tradition has always been respected for its impeccable delicacy, meticulous detail, and subtle precision of line and color composition. Wabi Sabi is a concept of Japanese aesthetics that grew out of Zen doctrines on simplicity and naked existence to describe rustic qualities of imperfection, refined emptiness, and withdrawal from all elements of worldliness. This enigmatic concept is manifested in the traditional tea ceremony, kimono design, and Japanese arts and crafts.

The unevenness of texture in a ceramic bowl, the asymmetrical strokes on sand that shadows reflect in an ancient temple, the unrhythmical flow of autumn petals and scattered branches in a kimono dress, the attenuated clash of light and dark, bliss and sorrow, and the omnipresence of wholeness and emptiness as one—such oblivious contradictions make up a distinct class of Beauty that Japanese have a characteristic eye for.

Daisetsu Suzuki, a foremost leader in Zen Buddhism philosophy refers to Wabi Sabi as the “active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” It is a poverty void of material and multiple desires that nurtures a spatial wholeness within a minimalistic concept.

Just as this notion of beauty is admired for beauty itself, so is art for art’s sake, as emphasized by the Aesthetic Movement of the 1800s. This art style called for a straightforward interpretation of literature, architecture, design, arts, and crafts without much intellectual, moral or logical reason. Beauty is simply beautiful.

Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo, in collaboration with Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Gallery, and private and public collections from Britain and Japan, displays approximately 140 artworks representing paintings, furniture, objects, and decorative arts during the Aesthetic Movement. Works by noted Aesthetic Movement masters, such as Albert Moore, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William de Morgan, Frederic Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones, George Frederic Watts, and others, depict unconventional expressions and postures that deliberately shy away from traditional structures and applications of art elements.

George Frederic Watts’ Study with Peacock Feathers, for instance, eludes a bold sensuality of feminism not associated with stiff bearing or conservative fashion. Art was honest, natural, and free. In Mother and Child by Frederic Leighton, we capture a most unusual and carefree pronouncement of a mother and child’s intimacy, wrapped around the natural flow of fabric that follows no form, the mother’s unmindful position, and the frivolous and barefoot child offering her mother a red cherry. Both figures are painted away from the audience’s eyesight, again suggesting the unconventionalism of a portrait.

Japanese art influences were also apparent in the artworks of the Aesthetic Movement. The presence of Japanese cloisonné, lacquer and textiles became visible as background sceneries, or elements of accent. A distinct form of Japonisme had well been incorporated into the artistic concept of beauty.

By the arrival of the Decadent Movement in the late 19th century, critics and writers voiced a stage for artifice over simplicity, and sophistication over imperfection. The outrage for the flamboyant taste soon saw the gradual decline of natural aesthetics.

By parallel thought, Wabi Sabi is generally hidden today amidst the labyrinth of exaggerated modernism and the seemingly digital Japanese lifestyle. The human eye, as only human weakness can be accused of, often fails to absorb in bare honesty Beauty for Beauty’s Sake. Where Aesthetic Movement art masters outlined forms and creative expressions with the utmost undemanding and effortless attention to ornament, the avant-garde digital world has selfishly replaced with cold, automated technology that beguiles least of our human sensation. Perhaps, in some unperceived moment in time, we will all return to the prime roots of our gentle ancestry—to the naked transparency of Beauty as uncomplicated as it should be. The Beautiful—Art for Art’s Sake: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 runs at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum until May 6th.