Recently, I visited an exhibition in the Sinebrychoff Museum in Helsinki, showing under the title “Under the Cherry Blossom” a selection from the large collection of Japanese woodblock prints of Finlands national gallery Atheneum.
There, a series of Geisha pictures by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 – 1806) caught my eye, not for the motive, but for the use of space. This question of use of space, however, is a central problem for visual artists that operate with fixed-dimensional canvasses (like painters and photographers). One has an empty square, either a canvass or the viewfinder in the camera, and a motif. The question then is, where the motive is placed. Utamaro shows us some of the (many) possibilities and, thanks to the liberal reproduction policy of the Atheneum, I can show them here:
First I noticed (almost painfully) the left leftmost picture. The hairdo indeed touches the frame. The placement of the face leans towards the left border and the hair and decoration form a diagonal from the top center to somewhere in the upper part of the left side. I wondered why I found this quite disturbing. Somehow, I think it leaves the figure “crowded” by the frame – the attention is drawn to the frame and the limits of the canvas. It looks to me, somehow, unnatural and unbalanced.
In the picture in the middle, the pose of the figure seems more settled (and the face almost centred) but now there is, I find, rather unsettling empty space on top and to the left of the figure. I’ll come back in a moment to the unsettling effect of emptiness, but here the figure (despite the dark big hair) seems to produce a center of visual gravity at the lower right corner – as if she was about to slide out from the picture.
The rightmost, third picture however is very different. All figures are slightly cut-off, the dark masses of hair are balanced in a triangle and the direction of the gaze of the standing figure reading a book seems also to fill the empty space to the left (where the inscription provides further balance). Paradoxically, to me, the very fact that the figures are cut-off reduces the presence of the frame. The brain is used to “auto-complete” incomplete extracts from reality, we know that these figures extend beyond the picture and it becomes easier to “feel” the space and room around them.
This role of the cut-off is quite significant for landscape scenes, where there is often a form of cut-off by necessity and always interesting to see how the artist chooses to cut off. But let’s return to the empty space. I said (claimed) that empty space can have an unsettling effect. Sometimes such an effect is the whole point of a picture. Think, e.g., of Kazimir Malevich’s famous Black Square from 1915 (I don’t have to show it here, it is just a uniformly black, square canvas). Malevich’s picture was meant to be hanged in a room instead, and at the place, of a Madonna icon. Black empty space there had its own, unsettling meaning.
There is, of course, a further famous example of a picture full of empty space and that is Muqi’s “Geese Alighting on a Sandbank” (now at the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo).
In one of his video lectures, the late, great James Cahill tells the story how he, as a young researcher in Japan, came to see the work, while it was still in private ownership (in the 1950s). It was shown in the picture alcove, the tokonoma, to be gazed and meditated on. He kneeled in front of it but had, after about 20 seconds, the feeling that he had seen everything there was to see. Still, it would have been impolite to leave so early, so he continued uncomfortably to gaze at the work. Later, he continues, he used to send postcards of this painting, which he adorned with speech bubbles where one goose says “Quack!” and other other answers “Quiet! This is a Zen painting”. Maybe it was that Cahill as art historian was so used to finding details in pictures that an almost empty piece of paper disturbed him. (I do think, however, that compared to Malevich a lot is still going on in the Muqi painting.)
While Malevich uses his canvas as a kind of black hole in the context of a certain scene (a traditionally adorned room) and thus conveys meaning, also the emptiness of Muqi’s painting, I think, conveys meaning. That is, however, not a narrative-based meaning, one we can decipher and tell (we can still do that with Malevich), but a meaning that is accessible only through experiencing it by gazing at the picture. This means, Cahill’s unsettled reaction could be the whole point of the picture. A questioning of our expectation and perception of of reality.
Now I want to build a bridge to my previous post on narratives and meaning: there is another form to communicate meaning other than by narrative. If one can make another simply “see” or “feel” (i.e. experience) a meaning there is no need for words. A merely empty canvas, however, does rarely work (again: in the Malevich case the room actually creates the picture). Emptiness, I claim, is created from motifs placed into empty space. Negative space and positive space create each other. I think Utamaro’s Geisha’s demonstrate this quite well. At the same time, the very fact that space in visual art exists within a frame (the limit of the canvas) requires to solve the tension (or even contradiction) between this frame and the emptiness and motif within.
I notice that this is a topic over which I have started to almost obsess. So expect more half-empty canvasses from me also in the future…