Beauty Given By Grace:
The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe
Square Halo Books $29.99 On Sale for $26.99.
I don't know if it is wise to be so candid in my first line: I don't know much about art. I have not traveled to the great museums and we don't have much good art in our own home. We have been privileged to come to know a few artists and have sold books at conferences and gatherings of groups such as CIVA and IAM, so we feel close to their righteous efforts. I read a lot about the interface of Christianity and the arts and have dabbled in studying theological aesthetics; we have more books on these topics in our small town shop than most bookstores, I guess, and we have several big lists about Christianity and the arts at our website. (See, here, for instance, or here or here.) But I am not schooled in the arts and not very experienced.
I don't need to write much to convince the well-schooled art experts about the value of this stunning new book featuring the brilliant work of the late Japanese print maker, Sadao Watanabe, as they already know of him and how impressive a new book about him must be. The soon to launch traveling exhibit which inspired this book, curated by Sandra Bowden and sponsored by CIVA, is getting some good publicity, and the Mr. Watanabe is, perhaps curiously, known all over the world. (His Bible scenes, portrayed in traditional Japanese folk art prints, are displayed in the Vatican, and have been in the White House; a large collection is housed at Valiparaso University* and the World Council of Churches commissioned pieces for their headquarters. Many of the world's finest museums show is work. His art has graced book covers and his calendars are in homes wherever Japanese people have immigrated.)
*For those in the mid-West, the Brauer Museum of Art at Valiparaso University is also hosting this Fall an exhibit of their own large collection of Watanabe works.)
I am more interested, however, in promoting this good book among those who may be unsure if it is a necessary purchase for them (given the long wish-lists and short budgets so many of us have.) I'm eager to help persuade people who are...well, people like me, who are not terribly well-schooled in the arts, to see the immeasurable value of this wonderful book, and to invite you to celebrate (and assist) the publisher Square Halo Books in getting this work to a broader audience.
It is, I want to announce, one of the great (if under the best-seller radar) publishing events of the year. That I sat outdoors at a nearby cafe and, embarrassed, quickly wiped tears from my cheeks as I read, is some indication of my profound gratitude that a book like this exists, and that we are privileged to sell it. I hope you can share my joy in honoring this faithful Christian culture-maker, the story and work of a man who came to Christian faith amidst the ugliness of World War II and the grim post-war years. He was baptized at age 17 after considerable investigation and internal struggle, and, once committed to Christ, offered his talents and gifts to God for the next 60+ years.
The book title itself is rich with meaning, beyond the obvious. Beauty Given By Grace is a line from one of Wantanabe's early teachers, an intellectual mentor to a movement of Japanese print makers who founded an influential arts journal, uniting Buddhist principles of art, but often citing the West's best spiritual traditions, the likes of Thomas Aquinas or even William Blake. It was this "people's philosopher," Soetsu Yanagi, who wanted to recover "beauty in common things" and who called Wantanabe to a deep
humility and spiritual sensitivity, away from fame or the industrial/production
This 111-page, 9" x 12" book is mostly a collection of brightly colored, intriguing, allusive
curious, (even funny, at times) Bible pictures. As a coffee-table type art book, it excels---great printing, glossy paper, expertly designed and arranged with color on every page! It will be a lovely addition to your end-table stack (and as I suggested last year with the fabulous Art That Tells a Story compiled by Chris Brewer) it will surely be a fruitful conversation starter for guests in your home or office. Yet, it is more than an intriguing, handsome, art book, as there are four well-written, informative, inspiring essays scattered throughout the book.
The artwork, as we've
said, mostly portrays Bible episodes, and the designers helpfully chose to arrange
the prints not chronologically (not showcasing the artist's oeuvre as it grew over the more than
half a century he worked) but rather corresponding to the Biblical chronology, showing artworks illuminating passages from
Genesis to Revelation. A few
pieces were purchased specifically to fill in a few vacancies in their
collection, assuring attendees at the show and readers of the book a truly helpful visual
Bible, with over 50 artworks, and their corresponding Bible texts, capturing the unfolding drama of promise and deliverance, from creation to new creation.
Families could use this, I'd think, in creative family devotions. Some readers might find it helpful in their prayerful lectio divina practices; resourceful church educators will find it invaluable. If it included only these colorful, playful, moving, depictions of Bible stories, it would be well worth the reasonable cost--we need good and creative art to help us see things anew, and who among us doesn't need some right-brained help in hearing God as we see His Word? But there is more here, much more. There is plenty for devout art lovers, certainly, but I think especially for us who don't know much about the details of the international art world. This book will expand your horizon and, as C.S. Lewis put it, "baptize your imagination."
The four essays in Beauty Given By Grace are excellent, informative and inspiring. What joy to get an inside glimpse into the life of a quiet Christian artist and those who collect and promote his work. Included first is a fabulous introduction to the traveling CIVA Exhibition project told with insight and enthusiasm by Sandra Bowden (who has one of the finest collections of Biblically-informed art in North America. She has been a leader in CIVA, a trustee of the MOBiA, the Museum of Biblical Art, and a generous supporter of many of the best recent initiatives for faith-based creatives.) Bowden tells fascinating stories of Watanabe's work, compares him with the French Catholic painter George Rouault, and tells us about Wantanabe's only private student. She mentions his large Last Supper piece, found in a church in Schenectady, and, later, takes us to the massive (and only) stained glass installation done by Watanabe, a part of the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The 1987 stained glass work, more than 12 feet long, is called The Covenant Window and was fabricated by Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, Inc. of Philadelphia.
This opening chapter is so very
interesting and informative, one cannot be feel graced, knowing that there are
people like Ms Bowden who offers pieces from her own collection, and gets things like this done. She initiates and networks, promotes and shares, teaches and tells
of the many good things that art and artists can do and that back-story itself should energize us. I have read this chapter more than once and am moved, made
glad, and feel a bit better for knowing about her curating and promoting of this
humble Japanese Bible artist.
Maybe it is this: we hear about so much bad stuff done in the name of Christ -- religious work that is manipulative, Christian art that is bad, political efforts that are contentious, preachers that are creepy, authors that are crude. And in my own life I discern shallowness and boredom and despair (it is easy to point the finger at religious knuckleheads, but my own heart and lifestyle, well....you know.) So I rejoice in the decent hope that this book represents, the legacy left to us by the likes of Sadao, the efforts of Ms Bowden, the organizational witness of CIVA, the publishing projects of Square Halo, all witnesses of beauty truly given by God's great grace. May it please Him that this book be bought and used, shared and discussed, that we all might resist the worst of our religion, and enhance the best of it. Yes, that is it: this book and all it stands for gives me hope! I believe it is hope you may need, too. Am I right?
Well, these four chapters are good, even if they aren't trying to be spectacular --- they examine and point to the artist and his work, after all. But they are good.
There is a deeply poignant piece by the contemporary Japanese-American artist (whose work is, in fact, grounded in another traditional Japanese style of painting) Makoto Fujimura. How touching to hear Mako tell of his own boyhood studies in Japan, his return there as a graduate student to study art and begin his career, his involvement in a campus para-church fellowship group, and his own struggle to find his own artistic voice, wanting to honor his ethnic and cultural background and his own new-found evangelical faith. His chapter is entitled "My Journey With an Artist I Never Met" and is a tender, honest piece for artists or fans. Or any of us, really: we all must walk that road, don't we, journeying alongside heroes and mentors---some whom we've never actually met---grounded in our place and ethnicity, and yet wanting the gospel to seep through in beauty and truth as we take up our vocations in the world. Fujimura's chapter is an example of the kind of thoughtful and faithful memoir that sounds a bit like testimony.
The longest and most
substantial essay is written by John A. Kohan. Kohan is perhaps the world's leading scholar on Sadao
Watanabe and his chapter serves to tell us more about Watanabe's background,
conversion, his interesting and circuitous route in finding tools and mediums that
allowed him to bring Biblical insight and narratives naturally to his countryman.
Interestingly, and importantly, in a story that speaks volumes, it is told that Watanabe went into a Christian bookstore in Japan shortly after his conversion. The book-covers, he noted, were often poorly designed, or had exclusively Western art. He had a passion to find ways to show forth the gospel and capture the energy, emotion, and sensibilities of Asian culture. Without having the serious missiological vocabulary, the young Japanese artist understood incarnation and contextualization. (A 1980 print, one of the few that are not Bible scenes, is called The Padres Are Coming and shows the ambiguities of Western religious colonization.)
Kohan obviously cares for Watanabe and explains his body of work well, by telling us about his marriage, his studies, his artistic teacher and mentors, a bit about how he created these stunning prints. The process, which you will enjoy learning about, is related to katazome, the ancient ways Okinawan artisans created print blocks for cloth, especially for kimonos. Watanabe was, in this sense, a folk artist, developing skills in an age-old trade, developing his craft, and allowing fresh winds of creative grace to blow through his innovations in the use of paint and color on the kappazuri prints. All natural methods were used, of course, including using paper made from the fibrous bark of the paper mulberry tree grown by farmers in northern Japan. Read this amazing description. Persimmon tannin??
His shibugami (stencil paper) consisted of three-ply sheets of kozo paper, hardened with persimmon tannin, then dried and cured in a smokehouse, which gave it a brown coloring. The small-format prints were made on plain mulberry paper known simply as washi. Watanabe preferred the textured look of momigami (wrinkled paper) for his folio-sized stencil art. Momigami is a type of paper once used for lining clothes, coated on both sides in konyaku (devil's tongue root), a gelatinous ingredient in Japanese cooking, which gives the paper strength and flexibility. The treated sheets are kneaded, crumpled, rolled, and stretched to create a creased, textured surface. Wantanabe hand-painted his momigami sheets before applying the stencil patterns, using solid colors with occasional variegated lines.
Kohan tells us a lot about the artistic vision and meaning of Watanabe's work, (and explains why James Michener's explanation of the meaning of a 1960 piece, Listening, is surely wrong) but these details about the doing of the craft are equally fabulous to read. I found his telling utterly absorbing, creating a real appreciation for the dedication of artists who do these kinds of things--curing paper in a smokehouse!---with such patience and integrity, slowly getting the whole process right, working hard with hidden treasures buried within God's creation. One story tells how Watanabe had to learn how the natural color pigments were (or were not) absorbed by the handmade paper. We learn about the protein in the milky binder his wife Harue prepared from soybean dripping and how it helped fix the color to the paper. And the ingredients!
Black was made from pure carbon and white from crushed seashells. Red came from the pulverized bodies of the female cochineal, a cactus-feeding insect, and blue came from the leaves of the indigo plant. Wantanabe's favorite color was king's yellow, made from the mineral orpiment, containing arsenic trisulfide. This beautiful but poisonous pigment has proved the least stable of Watanabe's natural colors; older momigami prints with yellow backgrounds often show signs of fading.
Perhaps most interesting to some theologically-minded readers will be the chapter written by I. John Hesselink, emeritus professor of Systematic Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (where he served as President from 1973 to 1985.) Hesselink studied under Karl Barth in Basel, and discerned a call to teach Reformed theology in Japan. He and his wife moved there as missionaries for the Reformed Church of America (RCA) in 1953 where they studied the language, until they returned to Switzerland to complete his PhD studies. They then moved back to Japan in 1961. Providentially, while getting a Japanese wood block print framed near his home in Tokyo, Hesselink overheard the non-English speaking framer/gallery owner struggling to serve a US customer; after offering his informal translation help, the frame shop/gallery owner "hired" Hesselink to translate for showings and lectures at his shop, paying him in art pieces. So began Hesselink's immersion in the Japanese art world and, soon, a life-long friendship with the up-and-coming young Christian artist whose Bible scenes were so very striking.
(Included in the book, by the way, is a rare piece that Watanabe was commissioned to do in his unique style---a portrait of John Calvin! Hesselink was part of a commission doing translation work, painstakingly translating Calvin's writings into Japanese, and Watanabe's portrait graced their offices.)
Hesselink tells wonderful stories about the workspace in Watanabe's home, and his partnership with his wife and children. "It is amazing," he writes, "that he could be so effective and productive, given the crowded conditions in which he and his wife worked. I don't think they ever took a vacation. Except for Sunday when they went to church, they spent all their time fulfilling their calling: making prints that could serve as a witness to the gospel."
As I got to know Watanabe better, I would occasionally suggest biblical subjects to him that he had not yet covered. He respected me as a theological professor, but I don't think he ever followed my suggestions in his artwork. He knew the Bible very well and was not about to let anyone tell him what biblical scenes his art should portray. His quiet self-confidence in what he was doing, however, was not a sign of arrogance - he was one of the most humble men I have ever known - but was born of the conviction that he was an instrument of God and that whatever he was able to accomplish was through the grace of God.
All four authors note
that although Mr. Watanabe's work is esteemed --- known world-wide, collected and
studied in the prestigious art world, Sadao and his wife (and, eventually, his
son, Tatsuo) were committed to these works being widely seen by common people; he was a
folk arts/craftsman and an evangelist or sorts, wanting Bible stories to be known in ways
that Japanese folk could appreciate.
This lead him to make his work available as popular pieces, calendars,
even Christmas cards. As the great artist himself put it, "I don't want my works simply
decorating churches. I would most
like to see them hanging where ordinary people gather, because Jesus brought
the gospel for the people."
The gospel for the people. May this book, lovingly produced by Ned Bustard of Square Halo, be used for this very purpose. The gospel for the people, indeed. Thanks be to God.
Beauty Given By Grace:
The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe
(Square Halo Books)
regular price $29.99
sale price $26.99
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