BORN in Boston, Massachusetts, the American artist Makoto Fujimura spent his childhood in Japan before returning to the United States as a teenager. He was educated at the private arts college, Bucknell University, in the depths of remote Pennsylvania. Founded by Baptists in 1846, Lewisburg University, as it remained until William Bucknell bailed it out in 1886, admitted women alongside men from 1852, provided that they sat facing west in classrooms; the men faced east.
In this book of reflective theology (Feature, 5 February 2021), Fujimura, who returned to Tokyo to study the ancient Japanese method of painting, looks both east and west. His father, an acoustic scientist and non-Christian, observed that the Judaeo-Christian tradition made possible “occidental science”. This essay finds as much for art.
The method of painting which he learned there (nihonga) is one in which the materials (often rare and valuable) are more highly prized than the formal concept of the artist. His own paintings combine lavish texture with an Expressionism that he seems to have encountered in Mark Rothko.
Thirty-five years ago, when I told the Quebecois artist Bill Vincent that I did not “get” Rothko, he took me to the Tate and sat me down in front of paintings from the series that Rothko planned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. He told me not to move until I could understand them; apparently Fujimura dispenses just such advice (as I have since done to others).
Silence and contemplation are here offered as ways to appreciate beauty and to encourage what elsewhere Fujimura has called “Culture care”.
The painter found his own faith reading William Blake’s poems when he was studying in Japan, and agrees with Blake’s observation that “A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect; the man or woman who is not one of these is not a Christian.” God is THE Artist, and we are called to be co-creators.
Fujimura explains that wabi means poverty and sabi rust, so that in wabisabi he comes to see beauty in what is passing and ephemeral. The other profoundly Japanese observation derives from kintsugi, the craft of mending broken porcelain. The resulting work is often more highly prized than the original. If, to Western eyes, of course, it looks just like a broken pot, we perhaps need to re-read Jeremiah 18.1-12.
Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.
Art and Faith: A theology of making
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