- 20th-century Decorative Art
- Arms and Armour
- Books, Manuscripts and Maps
- Classical Antiquities, Coins and Medals
- Clocks, Barometers and instruments
- Jewellery, Snuff Boxes and Miniatures
- Medieval art
- Modern Art
- Oriental and Asian Art
- Paintings, Drawings and Prints
- Porcelain, Ceramics and Glass
- Tribal and Pre-Columbian Art
- Textiles, Carpets and Tapestries
- Works of Art
Thumbs up for ......
Katsura Imperial Villa - Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro
The aesthetics of Japanese culture--be it architecture, cuisine, fashion, or ceramics--are so immediately identifiable, one doesn’t need to have spent any time in that part of the world in order to develop an opinion (or even a feeling) about the meticulous attention to detail that the country is renowned for. Not only is Japan celebrated for its dedication to style, but for the painstaking quality of its craftsmanship; form and substance harmonize beautifully in Japanese creations.
I was given the opportunity to visit the local Bauhaus - Archiv / Museum fur Gestaltung here in Berlin to examine the photography of Ishimoto Yasuhiro, who, in 1953, had documented the 17-century Katsura Villa in photographic form, to be published in the 1960 book “Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture.” Initially--I am almost ashamed to admit this--I was not entirely sure of why the Bauhaus - Archiv was the chosen venue for this photographic display, a clear indication of my (slowly eroding) ignorance towards what comprises the Bauhaus style, but upon examining Yasuhiro’s work and treatment of the Katsura Villa, I found that it made perfect sense: the Bauhaus style, native to Germany and beloved worldwide, is renowned for its simplicity, practicality, and timelessness (or, as Katsura Villa was described at the display, its standardisation, prefabrication, and simplicity), much in the same way Japanese design is revered.
Katsura: Gepparo Pavilion. Underside of the open‐beamed ceiling in the middle.
1953/54. © Ishimoto Yasuhiro
Katsura Village is a structure in the suburbs of Kyoto, Japan, which is known in that country as the “traditional” city for its countless monuments, temples, and preserved remnants of past empires. Katsura shows us a glimpse of the dwellings of princes during Japan’s Edo period (1603 - 1868) but there was apparently very little interest in Katsura Villa until 1933, when it was visited by Bruno Taut, who produced the book of black-and-white photographs taken by Ishimoto Yasuhiro, and is now considered “one of Japan’s large-scale cultural treasures” (taken from Wikipedia).
I will begin by commenting on the actual exhibition itself: examining format before actual content. It is laughably obvious to say (though I find myself doing exactly this!) that a gallery of photographic work should come relatively unaided by regular commentary or elaborate explanations of what the viewer is absorbing. The exhibit itself is simple, straightforward, showcasing Yasuhiro’s photographs against opaque white backgrounds, all the better to admire the work of the photographer. There is no linear layout to the actual display; instead, dozens of his pictures are displayed on walls and individual partitions, allowing the spectator to work her way through the photographs without feeling forcibly ushered from a starting point to an obvious conclusion.
However, there is one key element to the overall layout of the Katsura Village presentation at the wonderful Bauhaus - Archiv museum that I believe is slightly lacking, and which needs only one tiny improvement in order to make it perfectly accessible to each guest: while there is no set or forced pathway from beginning to end, most patrons of the Bauhaus - Archiv do commence their visit at the same point, where a welcoming sign introducing Yasuhiro’s work is mounted. It is not until most guests arrive at what is an ending point of the display that we actually understand what it is that we have seen, where it is located, and what its overall significance is--commentary is finally provided, offering us the opportunity to understand the significance of the photographs, of the photographic subject, exact geographical location, and why Yasuhiro’s work in documenting this previously-overlooked architectural achievement is considered groundbreaking.
Without this critical background information, it is easy to wander through the display secretly asking one’s self, What is this, and why does it matter? Perhaps this is brilliant strategy on the part of the exhibition’s coordinators, who insist on spectators admiring the work entirely on its own merits, though this doesn’t seem like a sound tactic; without context, or a vested interest in the theme of the display (in this case, the stunning architecture and garden design of a 17-century imperial residence in Japan), it is often difficult to sustain interest in a series of photographs, particularly when the visuals consist of a sole subject matter from varying angles and perspectives. In other words, it would make a galaxy of difference to reverse the order of the writeups around so that the explanation offered to guests at the finale of the display is what actually greets them before they even begin admiring the beauty of Katsura Villa, as once I reached the end of the display and was at last provided with a context, I wanted to go back and look at some of the work again through a much more educated point of view. A solid introduction would build a feeling of expectation and anticipation for the viewer, not necessarily influencing their perceptions of the artwork, but instead arming them with some purpose, some clear reason for spending any time at all deliberating over the very thoughtful work of both Yasuhiro’s phorography and Katsura Villa’s architects and designers.
This brings me to the real, and most important matter at hand here, which is the content. This display is ingenious in that it does actually present two different types of artistry in one exhibition--photography and architecture--so that it is actually impossible to admire the literally timeless quality of Katsura Villa’s aesthetics without appreciating the reverence with which its photographer showed it.
Katsura: Chushoin. South side of the first room and second room (left)
1981/82. © Ishimoto Yasuhir
Without the precision of Yasuhiro’s photographic talents and admirable technique for capturing details that may have gone overlooked by less meticulous shutterbugs, it would be easy to dismiss Katsura Villa as merely another lovely example of Japanese zen artistry, “dime a dozen” as they very well may be in the traditional city of Kyoto; instead, we find ourselves with a longing to visit the area, to see for ourselves if, in fact, it is as perfectly preserved as it appeared to be in 1950 (when Yasuhiro began his photographic odyssey) despite having been constructed between 1620 - 1650.
Katsura: Gakki‐no‐ma. North side of the three‐matted room
1981/82. © Ishimoto Yasuhir
The adjectives “haunting”, “tranquil”, and “timeless” are used often in describing traditional Japanese gardens, to the extent that they have become almost de rigeur collocations. However, Yasuhiro’s eye somehow refreshes these adjectives, taking them from hackneyed, meaningless descriptions to ones that are infused with a new relevance; the way he has captured Katsura Villa in black and white--stark yet inviting, distant yet familiar--shows us a body of work that wants the nearly-impeccable architecture of Katsura Villa to speak for itself, yet can’t help but force the viewer to imagine what apparitions must surely lurk, unseen, in each precise corner, behind every preserved beam of wood.
Katsura: Koshoin. View of the first room and spear room (right) from the second room
1981/82. © Ishimoto Yasuhiro
There is a thoroughly modern feel to the construction of Katsura Villa--sliding screens, symmetrical yet abstract floor plans, juxtapositions of natural elements; all features that would not be out of place in a 21st-century domicile whose design was strictly adhering to a visually-pleasing minimalism--yet its quaintness is unavoidably apparent.
Katsura: Koshoin. View of the first room from the second room
1981/82. © Ishimoto Yasuhiro
With no knowledge of what comprises traditional Japanese architecture, two things struck me about Kastura Villa’s architecture: the symmetry and the purpose. We will begin with the latter: it seems that one of the detached bulidings of Katsura Villa was built primarily as a means to look at the moon. The moon-viewing balcony is shown to us from various angles and perspectives, automatically instilling a sense of longing in the spectator for a moon-viewing veranda of their very own. Yasuhiro lovingly and tirelessly documented this balcony for us to admire, both in its careful construction as well as its aesthetic appeal and location.
Katsura: The Middle Shoin and Old Shoin seen from the south
1953/54. © Ishimoto Yasuhir
Further rooms are photographed in his typically blunt, yet respectful style, giving us close-up views of areas that enhance its timelessness and indicate hardly any signs of decay whatsoever. We move through photographs of a hand-washing room; a tea ceremony room; a waiting bench; a music room; and a health room, as well as attention paid to the impeccable symmetry, fastidious detail, and carefully-measured placement of each stepping stone and bamboo rod, all of which appear to have been untouched. In fact, Yasuhiro presents his photographs as though this were an abandoned villa, one that was built for all the aforementioned purposes, but never had the opportunity for occupation--although we know this was not the case.
Katsura: Detail of the formal stone pavement and stepping stone.
1953/54. © Ishimoto Yasuhir
The exhibition concludes as well with a two other books depicting full-colour photographs of Katsura Villa, including Akiro Naito’s simply titled “Katsura”, with pictures taken in 1977. I overheard some other museum guests murmuring to one another that they actually preferred the colour shots of the other photographers’ works, but then quickly asking themselves if colour film existed in 1953, when Yasuhiro’s had taken these pictures. I didn’t want to comment on their naivety, but even though I shared some of their opinion--after so many black-and-white renderings of the gorgeous villa, it was actually exciting to see how it appeared in full colour. However, it is undeniable that Yasuhiro’s work was seminal, in that he was the first photographer to express an interest in Katsura Villa as a fascinating subject, and furthermore--knowing that this Japanese expat had spent some time at the Amache internment camp in Colorado, thereby developing his almost melancholy personal style--lent some of his own personality to this hypnotic visual homage to the country and culture he no longer called home.
Was it of interest? Why not share it with others!