Monday, February 28, 2011

Sadao Watanabe

Sadao Watanabe *1913, 1996† was a Christian artist in Tokyo. The official religion of Japan is Shinto, but the ethos is Buddhist. Christianity is a small minority of one percent.

In the 20th century the Japanese were enthusiastic about technological acceleration of society. This was true under liberal democracy, and in militaristic fascism.

Watanabe began as a fabric dyer of kimonos. He was apprenticed into folk art tradition of mingei. This was anachronistic to the society. It was also, politically, suspect. Folk art was a socialistic movement, that was not favored among fascists or modernists.

The medium he chose was stenciling kneaded mulberry paper (momigami ). The paint was minerals in soybean whey, and the colors of Okinawan bingata fabric. This applied over a rice starch, the outlines in chinese black ink. The colors are bright and solid, the materials natural. The prints are similar in look to wood block prints, and for whatever reason, remind me of northwest Pacific Coastal Indian art.

Now as a youth he contracted tuberculosis and underwent a religious commitment. His sincerity and humbleness were deep. His subject matter was mostly biblical. He did treat some post-biblical Christianity.

His first champion in the West was James Michener. The Vatican had his prints displayed, as did Lyndon Johnson's White House. I have not found out which prints, he did many.
He portrayed non-Japanese characters in Japanese forms. Saint George looks like a samurai, but the serpent is not very menacing. The oriental dragon is not a symbol of evil. In Japanese mythology the emperor was a descendant of dragons. The dragons were wingless, yet flew, or flowed on chi energy (a sort of vital force). The dragon was sentient and capable of choice, and could choose to go bad.
Saint Francis' habit is a kimono. He blesses many colored birds of the same size and shape. The birds are treated as apostles.
Watanabe did several Last Suppers. Jesus, the largest figure (because of his importance) is top center with nimbus. Judas the Betrayer's face is not seen by the viewer, his purse of lucre is. The meal is Nipponese. Saki bottles are on table. The fish is special. In March and April the tai (sea bream) is red. This is the food of happiness and celebration. This is the food for parties and weddings, and gift giving. The culture of this food has been extant for centuries in Japan, and known before recorded time.

Here the diners are seated on the floor in kimonos as in Japan. They are in different poses as they are often depicted in the West. There is emotional and cultural impact in this. He acculturates Christianity into Japan.
Then Abimelech departing from thence came to the town of Thebes, which he surrounded and besieged with his army. And there was in the midst of the city a high tower, to which both the men and the women were fled together, and all the princes of the city, and having shut and strongly barred the gate, they stood upon the battlements of the tower to defend themselves. And Abimelech coming near the tower, fought stoutly: and approaching to the gate, endeavoured to set fire to it: And behold a certain woman casting a piece of a millstone from above, dashed it against the head of Abimelech, and broke his skull. Judges ix. 53.

Watanabe also illustrates lesser known stories of the Faith. Now, there is the Japanese traditional idiom in his work. The subject matter is foreign, and that is western. Now what is the most distinctive western physical characteristic? Hmm? — big, long, ridiculous noses.

He is not interested in perspective. His works while very figurative, are not concerned with visual realism. It is of a pre-renaissance abstraction. The eyes are not in the center of the head, but near the top as anatomical exactitude is not important. People perceive the eyes to be higher than they are. If the Japanese were of carolingian Europe, this could very well be a national style, not more divergent than celtic or slavonic from gothic.

In the spirit of Vatican II, and historical missionary evangelisation, such art could be on the walls of a church. It is not flamboyant. It is craftsmanship of artisan guild style. It is true art with a message and a spirituality. It is not empty polemic instead of art. There is truth and beauty, though the form may be unfamiliar. Not all Christian art needs to be in imitation of one style. I wonder how well known is this man's work?

1 comment:

  1. Nice post about this great artist-artisan! For more about Watanabe Sadao please visit: