15 December 2013

Another Version Of Beauty: Fosco Maraini In Japan


Within this photograph of a rainy day and a forgotten sandal on a dock is a vision of beauty that moves beyond forms.   In Zen, this is called satori, a mystical experience wherein the contemplation of a visual image allows the viewer to intuit a reality beyond the visible.    In the background of the picture we see a ceremonial-looking gate blurred by  mist.  The Great Torii is revered in Buddhism as the boundary between the worlds of the human and the spirit but, look long enough, and you can intuit as much.  Designed so that, during high tides, it would appear to float on the water, it was originally constructed in 1168 at Miyajima, in western japan.
To move outside one's own philosophical and religious traditions is an experience that can be both humbling and exhilarating.  Which brings me to the photographer and writer  Fosco Maraini (1912-2004).  I have enjoyed his photographs for several years but only recently got around to reading Meeting With Japan (translated from the Italian  by Eric Mossbacher, New York, Viking Press: 1960).  What a shame it took me so long.

The son of an Italian father and an English mother, Fosco Maraini grew up in a cosmopolitan family  in Florence.  He showed an early interest in languages so that, by the time, he entered the University of Florence, he was already fluent in both Tibetan and Japanese.  Also, while serving as a  translator for the Italian Navy in the Middle East, Maraini was bitten by the travel bug.  Chosen to join a scholarly expedition to Tibet by the eminent orientalist Giuseppe Tucci, Maraini was there when the 14th - and present -  Dalai Lama, Tenzyn Gyatso, was identified in 1938.  He also witnessed the Chinese usurpation of Tibet.  But he decided then and there to follow Tucci's path.

Maraini  first came to Japan on a scholarship from the University of Florence in 1938. With him was  his wife Topazia Alliata da Salaparuta, ("I felt I'd married a sound.  Ours was a phonetic marriage.") and their daughter Dacia, now a well known novelist.   They lived on the northern island of Hokkaido and Maraini taught Italian literature at the University of Kyoto.  In September, 1943, the entire family (now including three daughters)  was interned in a concentration camp at Nagoya when Maraini refused to sign a loyalty oath to Mussolini.   After two grim years, the Marainis were released in August of 1945 and were allowed to return to Italy.
But Maraini would live again in Japan, returning in 1953.  The changes brought by war saddened him, as when  he described a railroad stationmaster who seemed "the only man in uniform who could still hold his head high."
His interest in the ways that humans relate to their deities probably led to his engagement with Buddhism.  When you read Maraini's writings you encounter the intense knowledge that informs his photography.  A deep engagement with people as with ideas characterizes his work. When he photographs places it is not from the viewpoint of a traveler and his human subjects are individuals, rather than representative types.    A little girl in art class holding a paintbrush or a fisher-woman, armed with a knife and naked from the waist up,  are accorded their full individuality.   I could paraphrase Maraini's version of the spiritual aesthetic he found in Japan but much better, I think, to to read it in  his words.

Himeji: painting class, 1963.

    "For the reader to appreciate why I was so captivated ( by Tokyo at night) it is necessary to explain that Japanese towns, seen from the ground-level and by daylight, are inescapably ugly.... (I)t applies to them all, I should say without exception. Even Kyoto which ends by turning out to be one of the most fascinating places in the world,  is at first sight a bitter disappointment.
    What is the explanation of this fact in a country so sensitive to all forms of beauty?  To find the answer it is necessary for a moment to note some of the basic differences in the outlook of East and West.  With u there is something essentially sunny and radiant about beauty, which would make it absurd to want to conceal it; it is almost necessarily accompanied by a certain need of bright light.  When Hegel says “beauty is essentially a manifestation of the mind” he is expressing a profound belief of the West.
    Keats' 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' illustrates another aspect of our Western attitude.   Not only must beauty shine out in the world,  but is linked to subtle, ancient, and deep subterranean veins of truth.  All our aesthetic thinking, from Aristotle to Croce, turns in the last analysis on the relations between truth and beauty.   Thus, our cities declare themselves in squares and avenues, colonnades and cathedrals .   Their beauty is spread out in the sun, is constructed, organic.  They are the children  of the social order and technique, but also the children of dialectics ad geometry.

    In Japan, however, beauty is something that has to be worked for, earned; it is the reward for a long and sometimes painful search, it is the final attainment of insight, a jealously guarded posses ion; there is a great deal of vulgarity about beauty which is immediately perceptible.  The historical list of this aesthetic approach are not so much with truth and understanding;  they take us at once into the fields of intuition – illumination (satori), taste (shumi), and the heart (kokoro).  In one way it can be called a romantic attitude to beauty, from another angle it can be said that, as the beautiful is always recondite, it is an aristocratic attitude.
    Hence it follows to associate a town, the place where everyone comes and goes, the public domain par excellence, with beauty would be absurd.  Japanese towns are always mere tools for working and living in. impermanent entities serving mere practical ends.  They contain beauty, of course, but first you must desire it and seek it out, and then, perhaps, in the end it may be granted to you to find it.  Them if you find it, it will offer you subtleties unimaginable elsewhere, among secluded gardens and temples, or villas where the most perfect communion between man is achieved.  In Japan beauty is like an island, a whispered word, a moment of pure intoxication to be remembered forever."

Garden of the  Gosho Imperial Palace at Kyoto, November 1970.

Stairway inside the Gosho Palace, 1968.

Garden at the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto, no dtae given.

Garden designed by Honami Koetsu in 1615, with bamboo fence.

Thermal baths at Beppu, June 1968.

Japanese paper umbrella viewed from underneath, c. 1985.

Banners at a children's festival near Kamakura, May 1967.

Images: by  Fosco Maraini, photographer, from the collection of the Alinari Archives, Florence.


Tania said...

Yes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." (Oscar Wilde)

Jane said...

Tania, this is a discussion that could go on forever - and it already has. Plato and Aristotle couldn't decide what the nature of beauty is between them, but it still keeps legions of philosophers busy.
As to Fosco Maraini, his eye and mind worked hard to bring beauty to our attention.

Rouchswalwe said...

What a discovery! I'd not heard of Maraini before this. Thank you, Jane! Maraini's insight - "In Japan beauty is like an island, a whispered word, a moment of pure intoxication to be remembered forever." - captures what I began to feel during my years living on the westernmost island of Kyushu. The photos you've selected capture this beautifully.

Jane said...

I hadn't heard of Maraini until I recently read the novel "The Violin" by his daughter Dacia Maraini (in English, published by Arcadia Books in 2011. Then I searched for "Meeting With Japan."
I remembered that you had lived in japan, so I was hoping to hear from you about this. He also photographed in Bhutan - spectacularly, I should say. Especially as it is a land-locked country and I love the ocean most of all. But I saw a statue of a tantric goddess at the Johnson Museum at Cornell University last month and was smitten. I loved a phrase from the catalog: "celestial woman."

Rouchswalwe said...

Thank you for thinking of me, Jane! I'll look up his daughter's book, too. Bhutan ... now that's a place I've yet to discover. "Celestial woman" does speak to the heart. Especially when one ponders on such a woman here on earth.

Jane said...

Rouchswalwe, there are a couple of beautiful images of Bhutan by Maraini on my flash drive. But I know nothing about Bhutan.
It's difficult to feel celestial, let me tell you, so thank you for your generous comments.

ma boite de peinture par bruno charenton said...

Maraini's attention to colour, shape, balance, musicality of composition is arresting, thank you for posting and for the biographical adds on

Jane said...

You are welcome! Maraini brought to his photographs deep thoughtfulness. Even when he was far from his native home, he never photographed like a tourist.