Exhibition: The Art of Impermanence

Tenderly, I touched all things
Knowing that they do not last

~ After St. John of the Cross (1542-91)

Japanese’s most sublime cultural legacy is the principle of Wabi-Sabi, the philosophy of accepting imperfections in nature and in life. The word Wabi connotes rustic simplicity. It can also mean imperfections such as a small flaw in a vase which gives it a unique beauty. Sabi is the complementary concept, denoting the beauty of age, which in the art, is revealed by the surface patina that comes with weathering or use. Taken together, art that embodies the Wabi-Sabi principle exemplifies the respect of things humble, imperfect and impermanent. In Japanese culture, the examples that come to mind are the rustic simplicity of Zen gardens, the unrefined beauty of an old glazed vase, or the poetic arrangement of flowers known as ikebana.

The poetry of a traditional Zen garden.

A glazed vase by Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), decorated with simple calligraphic brush strokes. Hamada was a founding member of the Mingei movement, honoured as a living national treasure and was one of the most influential potters of the 20th century.
The tokonoma or alcove in a traditional Japanese house is a quiet spot for private contemplation. Reflecting the ‘wabi-sabi’ philosophy, it is usually decorated by a single scroll painting and a vase with flowers, whose natural beauty is thought to humble anything created by humans.
‘Competition of the 36 immortal ports’ by Prince Son’en (1298–1356), handscroll; ink on paper decorated with gold and silver birds and butterflies. 26.4 x 1140.5 cm. The John C. Weber Collection. Photography by John Bigelow Taylor.

Watch: “The Art of Impermanence

A video tour of Japanese artworks from the John C. Weber Collection and the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, highlighting the wabi sabi aspects of Japanese art through the ages. Produced by the Asia Society Museum, New York (duration: 14:06 mins).

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