The Dichotomy of Eastern and Western Art

Utagawa Toyoharu
Utagawa Toyoharu

Are American and European artists becoming “more Japanese” than the Japanese? That’s the feeling of some prominent Western artists who feel the traditional and philosophies that attracted them to the Orient in the first place, are gradually becoming threatened. 

Contemporary art in Japan is looking towards New York and Germany, according to sculptor Elyn Zimmerman. She added: ”There is a real division between young artists, who consider themselves part of the SoHo world, and older artists – who still call themselves craftsmen – who carry on the tradition of calligraphers and potters. The two worlds don’t cross at all.”

Division between east and west more obvious in China

CLEVE GRAY (1918-2004) Peach Basket #3, 1981 40 x 60 in.
CLEVE GRAY (1918-2004) Peach Basket #3, 1981 40 x 60 in.

It is in China that many artists feel, the real influence of Oriental art is exerting itself. But it creates an East and West division that is difficult to replicate. And that is most felt when it comes to calligraphy and word representation. 

According to US abstract painter Cleve Gray – who has spent the past five decades studying Chinese painting – the eastern nation has a relationship between words and painting that the west can never hope to emulate. 

“When they look at their characters, they have a visual meaning. They look at them like a picture,” he said. 

“We have A,B and C, and they look like nothing. It is interesting to watch people from the Orient in museums. They don’t look at paintings as we do. They read them.”

By this he meant that artists from the Orient don’t separate painting from pure calligraphy – something western artists have great difficulty understanding – and which often makes the work even more intriguing and exciting.

Oriental art and it’s “softness

Isamu Noguchi’s Garden That’s Suspended in Time
Isamu Noguchi’s Garden That’s Suspended in Time

Another definition of Oriental art – according to some western artists – is that it is not self-conscious. They appreciate that it is more “internal” in the sense that “If you are drawing a leaf, you are not drawing the leaf – you are the leaf.” At least that’s the view of Californian painter Robin Winters. He, like many other US and European artists, regard Oriental art and culture as “more holistic” than that of the west. Fellow painter Pat Steir sees it as “a concentration and purity without a rejection of subject matter.”

Other western artists who have been influenced by Oriental art include Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Robert Kushner, sculptor Betty Woodman and Isamu Noguchi (the latter creating sculpture gardens). Alex Katz, Sonia Gechtoff and Yvonne Jacquette have similarly been attracted by Japanese prints.

Noguchi, who spends six months every year in his native Japan, says his work is more appreciated in the West than in his homeland, where he believes, young artists are trying to forget it Japan’s artistic traditions.

Reinventing Chinese brush strokes as American

Husband and wife Brad Davis and Janis Provisor, two Colorodo-based artists, are keen to incorporate Chinese brushstrokes and shapes in their work – but to do so in what they refer to as “a pictorially and purely Western way.” Together with Arnold Chang of Southeby’s the pair are set to stage an exhibition at Long Island this summer. 

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