Negative Space in Asian Art and Cooking

(Updated, 2/1/17:  fixed broken links)

If you came to read about food and cooking, bear with me in this post. I’ll get to that subject in a few lines.

Recently I visited the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco to see a survey of Japanese painting called “Traditions Unbound: Groundbreaking Painters of 18th-Century Kyoto.” It featured work from a group of Kyoto painters who — because of a political realignment within Japan — were able to break away from the rigid traditions of the ruling painting school in the 17th and 18th centuries and create their own style. I admit that Japanese painting had never been one of my favorite areas — I have seen too many screen paintings of The Tale of Genji, I suppose — but this exhibition was astonishing. Although most works are paintings of black ink on a gold or wheat-colored background, the artists were able to create dynamic worlds with their brushstrokes. A painting of a marsh and birds by Goshun (Matsumura Gekkei) made me feel like I was there and could see and hear the willows swaying in a morning breeze. A painting of a crane and waves by Okyo was also stunning.

Now to the connection to food, tenuous as it may be…

The exhibition will include two collections of vegetable paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1715-1800). The first one to be exhibited is one of his most famous: a recreation of the Buddha’s attainment of Nirvana (“parinirvana”) with the Buddha and his followers depicted as vegetables (image here). At the time of the painting, the Japanese had a standard way of illustrating the Buddha’s death, with the Buddha lying on a platform with his head to the left, a grove of trees in the background, disciples and bodhisattvas surrounding the Buddha, and the Buddha’s mother (Queen Maya) visiting from the heavens. In his painting, Jakuchu represented the figures with vegetables and fruits. The commentary on this work in the exhibition catalog says that Jakuchu’s intentions were never fully known: was this a light-hearted parody or a statement of his religious beliefs? Various sects in Japanese Buddhism believed that all beings — including plant and animals — possessed the Buddha nature. Perhaps Jakuchu was reaffirming his devotion in the painting. Alternatively, since his family was in the vegetable business, it was possibly a memorial for a recently deceased relative.

The second connection to food is the concept of “negative space.” Japanese painters and printmakers were (and still are) masters in the use of negative space, which is the area around the main subject(s) that enhance the effect of the artwork. For example, unpainted areas or a sparse background as in Wyeth’s Christina’s World can heighten a mood or say something about the subject’s condition. In the world, of cooking, “negative space” also has a place. For example, one could argue that various dishes in a meal can each contain negative space that plays off of the flavors and textures in the other dishes. In other words, what isn’t there is important and can enhance what is there. Another concept that the Japanese paintings share with cooking is restraint, i.e., less is more. Sometimes the simplest preparation can be the finest.

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