Elise & Me: A Tale of Extreme Optical Seduction



Elatia Harris

The year I was 9, I made every effort to turn Japanese.  I padded around the house in tabi and a kimono, elongated my eyes with my mother’s make-up – she wasn’t using it  – and did up my long dark hair in what I regarded as geisha poufs anchored with chopsticks. I even packed a small bag with tissue-wrapped favorite possessions, in case the opportunity to leave permanently for Japan came all of a sudden – as I had faith it would. Beneath the dress-up, however, and the very strong signal that I was not best pleased by life as a child in the West, was the real ardor I felt for the art of Japan. It looked so right to me, it just was right. Why was that? What was the secret? 

Elatiastudent1My mother knew what there was to know about how to look at Western painting, and together we looked at hundreds of paintings on the walls of museums and galleries and inside books. Though I might wait weeks for her to find an hour to page through a certain art book with me, I never pushed ahead without her until I began turning Japanese. She experienced the japonesque as chic, a deft touch in any environment, but the true family aesthetic was one in which Jules Verne duked it out with Henri Matisse. I will not forget what it was to be profoundly attracted to something my brilliant mother didn’t particularly get — it was a real rite of passage. From this distance, I see how kind she was to encourage me on my way away from her.  In the photo to the left, however, I appear a bit resentful. She had asked me to look up from what I was doing — assuredly not my homework — and I didn’t like my concentration to be broken. If at this age I was found drawing, then I was drawing something that looked — to me at least — Japanese. But I needed a guide to that universe of art and taste that drew me in, and it could not be my mother.

Enter Elise Grilli – a woman whom I suppose I never knew, although it does not feel that way.  I first encountered her name on the cover of one of my most beloved childhood books, Golden Screen Paintings of Japan. You can see the scan of my personal copy below left – it’s dog-eared the way a book gets if you sleep with it for many years. On the upper right corner, there is ink I spilled from copying something inside it. Akiyama Teruzawa’s big book from Skira, Japanese Painting, was similarly pored over by me, and is now obviously distressed, like the Modern Library edition of The Tale of Genji, written by the world’s first novelist, Lady Murasaki, and translated by Arthur Waley. Nobody in this bunch wrote for children, but in fact they all wrote for me. Especially Elise Grilli.

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From the post-war years through the 1960’s, curiosity about the art and culture of Japan was likely to lead a reader of any age to a kind of book that would today be hard to find — one that unabashedly played up the otherness, not to say quaintness, of things Japanese. Asia was called the Orient then, and the modifier for anything east of Vienna was “Oriental” not “Asian.” (Well, I exaggerate — but not by much.) The Allied Occupation of Japan did not end until late in 1951, and even by the time I began studying the subject that would fill so much of my childhood, Japan was still Other. It was certainly the antithesis of the maroon sides of beef slathered in barbecue sauce, the morgue-temperature air-conditioning, and the fevered visual excess I considered to surround me, and that alone would have gotten it my childish attention — but perhaps not for long. And we are talking about long years of being absorbed in a subject, so that when in school I could pick my topics and write to please myself, I would write about Japanese gardens, Japanese creation myths, Japanese tea ceremonies, or some aspect of Japanese art. A teacher in the 6th grade made fun of me for this — gently. And even after years of child-time, it was not that I had learned so much, but that I had looked so much. For this was all about extreme optical seduction, the ideas and feelings it can give rise to.

It happened through books — tiny books, at that. In the late 50’s, Elise Grilli wrote two 7″ x 7″ soft cover companion books for Crown, Golden Screen Paintings of Japan and Japanese Picture Scrolls. Each is one-quarter of an inch thick, with about 30 pages of text and 36 plates, mostly color. They belonged to the “Art of the East Library” series, and they cost $1.25 each. My mother must have bought them for me at the local museum book store — I don’t remember wheedling her, but I wouldn’t have been above it. There was also the Kodansha “Library of Japanese Art,” brought to Western readers by an arrangement between Kodansha, an old Japanese publishing house, and the Charles E. Tuttle Company. These were amply illustrated soft cover monographs on leading Japanese artists, from Sesshu to Taikan. I see that the 7 volumes — about the height and width of paperback mysteries, but perhaps 30% of the thickness — I have owned since the age of 8 were marked down from $1.25 each to 75 cents. Of the Kodansha books I owned, Elise Grilli wrote or co-wrote the texts on Sesshu, Sotatsu and Hokusai. I’ve read them all many, many times. Her name became very familiar to me, as did her words, her beautifully chosen words.

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The image under the title is a four-panel screen from the Room of Maples and Flowers, painted in the late 16th century by Hasegawa Tohaku and now in the Chishaku-in, a temple complex in Kyoto. Each gold foil panel is a bit under 6 feet in height. I first became aware of this work of art reading Golden Screen Paintings of Japan, my $1.25 book by Elise Grilli, and it was the most gorgeous thing I had ever seen, period. Paging through the book late at night, I would have to sneak up to it, because it was almost too much, and because the ravishing pleasures of anticipation were not to be disdained. The same artist, Tohaku, painted the monkey panels, above. These are ink paintings on paper, incorporating a gold wash, now in the Kyoto National Museum. Oh, their fur, their presence.

Unfathomably, it was the same Tohaku who painted the pair of six-paneled screens below, Trees in Fog, now in the National Museum, Tokyo. These are slightly over 5 feet high, just sumi on paper. No gold. If you imagined them side by side you would set the right edge of the topmost at a slight distance from the left edge of the bottom screen.  So that, considering the twelve panels as a whole, there would be two — almost three — largely empty panels in the middle.  Before I got a look at Trees in Fog, I didn’t know there were compositions of this kind. I knew it was bad composition to put something smack in the center of your drawing, but I did not know you could put so much nothing there.



Might you not be better off doing as Tohaku did in the Room of Maples and Flowers, and drawing a tree that reached diagonally across the center of your composition, while truly inhabiting areas just to either side of it? Trying to find the right way to draw things, I was instinctively attracted to an individualistic painter of vast and wide-ranging genius. My first sensations of wonder and bewilderment have stayed with me. They remain the correct response to the daring and naturalism I saw, that I was too young to know I could not as an artist aspire to.

Thanks to Elise Grilli, I was beginning to understand there were two long traditions in Japanese painting that occasionally inter-penetrated but were also separate. Very roughly, there was a tradition that overwhelmingly reflected the civilization-changing influence of China and Buddhism, and one that was Japan’s unique contribution to world art, with each flaring into greater vitality at different times over almost 1500 years. Another distinction to look out for was that between art of a private, contemplative nature — a scroll that is unfolded slowly in the hands, a poem card — and art best understood as a large element in an entire surround, like the screens above. In the West, the same distinction might attach to the difference between drawing and painting, the former usually done by artists for themselves, the latter having a necessarily public intention. In the West, too, the same artist might excel — that is, live equally — in both drawing and painting, but in Japan, with staggering though very few exceptions, art that was contemplative would not issue from the mind or hands of a great decorator-painter.

SesshulandscapeThat was a matter of different trainings, temperaments and positions in society, I learned from Elise Grilli. Reading about Sesshu, the priest-painter who in 1467 had gone to China to study, returning to Japan to found an academy, I saw that for some kinds of painting, you needed to be a philosopher.  Oh, perhaps even an aristocrat. Not like Tohaku, whose birth as a dyer’s son conferred outsider status on him, making it anything but a sure thing he would gain a toe-hold as a screen painter in an elite studio — as indeed he did not. As a Buddhist priest born to a samurai clan, Sesshu occupied a troubling position too, however — he was both a master of ink painting, a suibokuga, and one in a long tradition of adepts whose first allegiance could not be to to anything in the samsaric world, not even to brushes and paper. And yet, this detachment was essential to his art — something that made no sense at all to me, until I was able to see that that was the point.

The painting above, left, Sesshu’s Winter Landscape, in the National Museum, Tokyo, to me sums up kara-e — Chinese-style painting as it is done in Japan. Because of a book that cost 75 of my mother’s cents when I was 8, I have had decades to think about Sesshu — not a task you can fully accomplish in a lifetime. A child of the mid-century, I could not look at the central area of the background of this landscape and fail to wonder how a priest in Japan the 1400’s had found his way to abstraction — which of course belonged to my own era. To painting an idea of winter and ice on rock, and not its appearance. I showed my mother, who knew everything about modern art. Her mind boggled, too, that the crowning achievement of the painting of our time — radically to simplify, to search for essences, to suggest — could have been thus anticipated. Much later as a college girl, I would learn from another wonderful teacher, Katherine Caldwell, how through the centuries Chinese painting veered towards an appearance of abstraction. For the time being, however, my mind was on a handful of long-dead Japanese painters. Among the very great benefits of turning childish attention upon the long ago and far away is a world view that, even if it is inaccurate, is thrillingly grand, that will impart the habit of looking for connections.  Sometimes, after all, they’re there.

That which was uniquely or at least especially Japanese in painting — yamato-e — stirred me beyond anything. Not always — occasionally yamato-e could look phoned in or precious, and, developing an eye for this stuff, I could see that something was amiss. Too much has been written on the differences between yamato-e and kara-e; whenever you think you’ve pinned it down, you can, yourself, produce an exception. Greatly to simplify, kara-e is line to which color or modeling is added, yamato-e the juxtaposition of flat areas of color. Looking again at Tohaku’s screen from the Room of Maples and Flowers (under the title), you see a blue curving shape in the panel second from left that you know to be a body of water receding into the distance — a winding stream. The gold ground stands equally for riverbed and sky — you sense this without needing more. That’s yamato-e, which could not and did not happen in China. Looking at Sesshu’s Winter Landscape, the primacy of line is apparent — it is specific, suggestive and expressive, and it is through the weight of the line, from dark and bold to faint and attenuated, that you apprehend the recession of objects in space. I am not so sure that, in the 502 years since he died, any painter has taken kara-e further than Sesshu. Or shall ever do.

But where do these distinctions leave us when we look at Tohaku’s Trees in Fog?  This shattering masterpiece, almost 24 feet long, and according to a 2001 poll, Japan’s best loved painting, is neither juxtaposed areas of color nor line in the sense of contour-line.  Using enormous brushes, Tohaku made a brush stroke the very shape of a trunk, a bough, a clump of pine needles. So that line is never exactly descriptive, in that you can’t separate it from form. The radiant fog here is what establishes distance, some trees standing before us, roots to crown, others veiled.  You know the forest is dense, for you can see trees that are pushed aslant by the upright growth of others, yet a shimmering bright fog is everywhere moving in and out. The painting itself has almost an aural quality — of deep hush. You can tell that if it were not for Chinese civilization, which changes everything it impinges on, and has always done, this work would not have come into being, but it’s transcendantly yamato-e.

Has yamato-e reached such an apotheosis with color? Oh, I have long thought so so. On the cover of Elise Grilli’s 1959 book, Masterworks of Japanese Painting, 15th — 19th Centuries, there is a close-up photo of an iris from Ogata Korin’s pair of six-paneled screens, Kakitsubata, below, painted in about 1705, now in the Nezu Art Museum, Tokyo. The screens refer to a wistful verse in a 10th century romance, the Ise Monogatori — everyone who looked at them would have known it. Unusually for an art historian, Elise Grilli writes about the in-and-out aspect of a folding screen — a byobu — which, standing on its own before you, would give an experience that cannot really be simulated in 2-D space. The irises would take on a different presence, with your seeing them as if from both above and below — a manipulation of your “felt axis” that would gently and pleasurably disembody you, putting you in iris-space the way Monet would place you among waterlilies, looking impossibly up at the high horizon of the pond. This is a perspective that Western painting discourages, and that you can enter through tiny portals — books only twice the size of a deck of cards.

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I still have and read Elise Grilli’s books, although I no longer sleep with them.  In writing about their place in my childhood, I haven’t wanted to quote from them.  I’m turfy about her — she’s mine.  And anyway, what if readers found her less entrancing than I did, and do?  Hers is the voice of a charming, educated mid-century writer who gently impels you to see and to love what you see, who has the gift of creating interest before she imparts information. I don’t know if she was thought of as a formidable scholar — so many formidable scholars of the era are no longer consulted, yet, in preparing to write this post, I learned that her book on Sharaku, written in the 50’s, was just last year re-issued. For the most part, her books can be found on the secondary market, where they cost a lot more than $1.25.

Who was Elise Grilli, really?  I never knew in any detail until a few weeks ago. She lived in Japan from the late 40’s through the mid-60’s, and raised her children there. She spoke, read and wrote Japanese, and wrote articles on art for The Japan Times, for which her husband was a music critic. That figures — she was fond of using musical and also literary analogies to illuminate art that was still very foreign, comparing and contrasting what readers might know with what they probably did not, the better to facilitate optical seduction. It’s a habit I see I’ve caught — although my mother did it too. Her biggest book, The Art of the Japanese Screen, Weatherhill, 1970 — and you will never know a better treatment of the subject — I did not as a child get my hands on.  It was published posthumously. She died in 1969, at work at that time on a book about calligraphy in China and Japan. She was not much older than my mother — something I’d always sensed.

That’s a bad loss, that she did not complete and publish the work-in-progress. I only just found out, and I am passionately sorry, and sorry for her children too, who would have then been young adults.

At around the same time, I was beginning to learn about calligraphy, about the syllabary that Lady Murasaki used to write the Genji Monogatori, in the Heian Period, when men at Court wrote bad poetry in Chinese and, in Japanese, women wrote good novels. Chinese calligraphy looked to me then like ideas, Japanese like a language to record utterances. I went further back than the Heian Period, to the 9th century, to the time the Japanese, who did not write at all before contact with China and the extreme alterations that it wrought, began to develop a written language that diverged from the grafted-on Chinese, that was more suitable to their own spoken language. A calligrapher-monk, Kukai, may have been instrumental in this process. He had been to China, returning to found the Shingon Buddhist sect, headquartered at Koyasan. There, beyond the darkly forested Okuno-in, for centuries the cemetery of choice for Japanese Buddhists, beyond the Lantern Hall where two lanterns have burned for 900 years, in an underground chamber of Mt. Koya, Kukai had not died, but had entered eternal samadhi — deeply concentrated meditation — to await Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.

I was a big girl now, and I was off.