Exquisite Zen Drawings Make Barbarians of Us

There are occasions in our encounters with art, especially if the art in question is not a familiar experience for us, when the most mordant sarcasm may be the best introduction to the most exquisite delicacy and splendor. Sarcasm disabuses us of our tendency to be pious about beautiful things we may know little or nothing about. It reminds us that all art is, after all, an earthly enterprise, shaped by historical circumstance, however much it may aspire to transport us to heavenly realms.

Which may be why, when I found myself the other day in the new exhibition of old Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum, I thought of a book I hadn’t looked at in years but which had made a great impression on me when I first read it. It is a travel chronicle called A Barbarian in Asia , published in Paris in 1933 and written by the Belgian-born poet Henri Michaux, who, among other gifts, had a talent for disabusing the French of their cultural pieties.

Michaux took a mischievous pleasure in reminding his French readers, who naturally thought that Paris represented the most advanced civilization the world had ever seen, that the European traveler in Asia in the early decades of the 20th century was indeed a species of “barbarian.” He wasn’t talking about the politics of imperialism, either; he was talking about esthetic sensibility. This was not, to say the least, the way the Parisian intellectual elite tended to see themselves.

Michaux set out, in his characteristically abrasive and apodictic style, to clear the air by promptly declaring: “Tokyo is a hundred times more modern than Paris.” And then, compounding the provocation, Michaux observed, “The Japanese have been modern for 10 centuries. Nowhere in Japan do you find the slightest trace of that stupid pretentiousness of what is called Louis XIV, Louis XV, Empire, etc.” As for the delights of Boucher and Fragonard, Michaux dismissed their entire period as “the century of the boudoir pimp.” And the 19thcenturyinFrance? Michaux called it “the century of heart trouble.”

The purpose of Michaux’s sarcasm was, of course, to underscore the great difference which then still separated “the manner, the style” of Japanese culture, and indeed all of the Asian civilizations from which Japan had borrowed so much, from their counterparts in Europe, where, in his view at the time, “All is struggle, desire, avidity.” Whether this distinction still obtains today, in our age of globalization, I shall leave for others to say. Writing in the early 1930’s, Michaux believed that Europe was heading toward its doom, and he wasn’t entirely wrong about that. He may not have fully understood that Asia, too, was heading for a doom of its own, but that is another subject. He was looking for alternatives to Europe.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the Western visitor to the new exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is called Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art , is also likely to feel like a “barbarian”-which is to say, an uneducated foreigner-in the presence of an art and culture so radically removed from the assumptions and conventions governing our own. It’s not only the total absence of Western iconography, both classical and Christian. Even more radical are the differences in the way both nature and the artifices of civilization are depicted, the differences in the artistic materials employed-painting on silk, for example, rather than canvas-and the really profound differences in the way earthly space and the dreams of an unearthly paradise are imagined.

In Japanese art of almost every period represented in the Burke collection, which ranges from the Jomon period (circa 2,500 B.C.-6th century A.D.) to the late 19th century of the Edo period, it is not only landscape and the human figure, but all of natural history that seems to belong to another universe. Often, too, there is no clear distinction between literary content and visual form; every touch of the calligraphic brush may have a story to tell to those equipped to read it. What to the uninstructed eye may seem to be a surfeit of decorative detail may disclose a profound philosophy of life.

For those and other reasons, our Western sensibilities tend to feel adrift in much of this art, where the logic of the framed canvas dissolves into the indeterminate space of the pictorial scroll, which, by its very nature, can never be apprehended in its entirety at any given moment but must be divided, even where the subject is primarily landscape, into a sequence of narrative episodes. There is a similar problem in attempting to distinguish between what is religious and what is secular in this art, for despite the popular versions of Buddhism that are now widespread in the West, the more occult varieties of Buddhist doctrine are destined to remain beyond the reach of our own materialist civilization. That the act of ink painting with a pointed brush may itself constitute a religious form of meditation, which it was-and presumably still remains today-for Zen monks, is similarly confounding. For unlike Western religious art, the art inspired by Zen does not illustrate a religious text but is thought to be in itself a ceremonial form of prayer.

What I am speaking of here is not, of course, a criticism of either Japanese art or this marvelous exhibition, which abounds in esthetic delights and marvels of artistic invention and craftsmanship. Rather it is offered as a caution, a caution not to expect to understand everything there is to be seen in this Bridge of Dreams on a first encounter. What we are confronting in this exhibition is the history of a civilization, the comprehension of which is a daunting task. Most of us, I dare say, will settle for the abundant esthetic delights and leave the matter at that-settle, that is, for a skimming of the surface. For anyone willing to be shocked into some of the deeper implications of the subject, I recommend A Barbarian in Asia which, in Sylvia Beach’s beautiful translation, was published by New Directions in 1949.

Meanwhile, the Bridge of Dreams exhibition remains on view at the Met through June 25.

Fortunately, this will not be our last chance to become more closely acquainted with the Mary Griggs Burke Collection, which is said to be the greatest private collection of Japanese art outside Japan. For it has been announced that Mrs. Burke, who with her late husband Jackson Burke has been building this collection since 1954, is leaving the bulk of the collection to the Met as a permanent gift. This means that future generations of museum goers will have an opportunity to become as familiar with the mysteries of Japanese art as earlier generations have with the achievements of Greek and Egyptian art. For such repeated and long-term opportunities to study an unfamiliar artistic tradition, there is of course no substitute, and it is good news that the Met will in the future add this world-class collection to its already abundant treasures.