As I noted in a previous post (In praise of the artist John McLaughlin), the California artist John McLaughlin (1898-1976) is one of my favorite artists. McLaughlin’s favorite artist was a 15th century Japanese monk-painter named Sesshu Toyo. Here his the Kyoto National Museum blurb about the Sesshu painting shown above:
This masterpiece depicts a bird’s-eye-view of the famous sandbar in Tango province, one of the Three Famous Scenic Spots in Japan. It can be dated by the coexistence in the painting of the two-storied Chionji temple pagoda, which was built in 1501, and the buildings of Nariaiji temple, which burned down in 1507. It is remarkable to think that the artist, who was well into his eighties at the time, climbed to such heights to paint the scene! The painting’s combination of soft, wet ink tones, precise brushwork and sublime composition represent the acme of Sesshu Toyo’s (1420-1506) art.
This painting can be considered the masterpiece of an artist who went to China to study painting from life and the art of the Song and Yuan Dynasties and sought the unity of Zen and art throughout his life.
John McLaughlin lived in Japan for three years in the 1930s, and after that opened a Boston gallery that sold Japanese prints. “During World War II, he used his fluency in Japanese to do Marine Corps intelligence work in China, Burma and India,” wrote art critic Christopher Knight in his article about McLaughlin, Open your eyes to John McLaughlin. Here is an excerpt from that article, where Knight discuses the influence of Eastern art and thought on McLaughlin’s work:
For McLaughlin, though, the void was fundamentally different. His is a visionary envelope, an open space of expansive thought, creative energy or the spirit. It’s a void that represents the highest aspiration within Japanese aesthetics rather than Western tradition.
McLaughlin had deep admiration for traditional Japanese and Chinese painting. He was inspired by it as much as by Mondrian or Kazimir Malevich, the spiritual Russian Suprematist. In fact, Sesshu Toyo, the 15th century Japanese monk-painter, was his favorite artist.
Eastern painters were aware of Western perspective, but they rejected it. Instead, they designed paintings to draw a viewer into a profound visual excursion through time and space. McLaughlin did too. The modern Western tools of color and shape in geometric abstraction fuse with the Chinese manner of monochrome painting. Solid merges with space, line with shape.
McLaughlin’s easel paintings, never more than 4 or 5 feet on a side, also dispense with the public scale of a mural, which New York School painters demanded. His paintings are instead designed for intimacy — for the one-on-one experience of contemplative interaction that describes, say, a single Japanese scroll hanging in a tokonoma alcove. The modest size maneuvers a viewer into an optimal place a few feet away, from which to cogitate in splendid isolation.
“I want to communicate only to the extent that the painting will serve to induce or intensify the viewer’s natural desire for contemplation,” the artist once said, “without the benefit of a guiding principle.”
See also: In praise of the artist John McLaughlin