wabi sabi

Very busy and behind with work at the moment but lots of interesting things which would be nice to share when I get time.

Today I just wanted to share a few thoughts on wabi sabi.

Ever since Bernard Leach went to Japan and wrote about Japanese aesthetics there has been great interest in the Japanese ideas about beauty. I was first introduced to the ideas through Leach’s adaptation of Soetsu Yanagi’s “The Unknown Craftsman”. When I first read the book it was a revelation, it felt like it gave words to the feelings I already had, it gave a vocabulary to describe how simple humble things could be more wonderful than the glamorous and bling end of material culture that is often highlighted in Western museums and galleries. It suggested that the Japanese had words that explained these concepts which did not translate directly and had lots of subtle nuances difficult for outsiders to grasp but gives a fair explanation of the concepts in English.

“A certain love of roughness is involved, behind which lurks a hidden beauty, to which we refer in our peculiar adjectives shibui, wabi, and sabi.”

Yanagi discusses shibui at length but suggests that wabi is to ephemeral a concept for most westerners to grasp. How tantalising a concept, not surprising then that wabi and sabi have become much used terms in the Western craft world even if we don’t understand what they mean. We have this feeling that there is maybe something there that we admire, that if we could understand, would help us more fully understand the simple and humble in our own material culture. I suspect to some it also sounds rather grand using words that we don’t fully understand in another language. There are numerous books on wabi sabi a typical one from my bookshelf is ‘Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers”. These are mostly written by Westerners trying to interpret what they think they have understood in the Japanese concepts for us. The above book is subtitled “Wabi Sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is the beauty of things imperfect, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble.” This actually sounds closer to the meaning of shibui than wabi or sabi to me though I have an incomplete understanding of all these words and prefer to use English terms which I understand fully.

The impetus for this post was what I think is a great blog post by a potter in Japan. Euan is a Westerner but he has lived and worked in Mashiko for 20 years (the pottery Village where Hamada lived and worked) This is the first paragraph of his post which I hope will encourage you to visit and read the rest, it is the simplest, clearest explanation of wabi sabi I have read, clearer and more comprehensive than most books on the subject.

“Just as in English there is a whole vocabulary available for the discussion of Art and Beauty, so too does such a vocabulary exist in Japanese. There is a tendency among people with a passion for and some experience in Japanese art to use the word “Wabi sabi”, and yet so little understanding of what the term refers to. Leonardo da Vinci said that, “If you cannot explain something, you don’t understand it.” To be anecdotal for a moment, there was one young American anthropologist who had studied pottery briefly in Mashiko, who gave a slide lecture here to coincide with an exhibition of American ceramics. Anything in his slides which seemed even vaguely Japanese influenced he described as possessing “Wabi sabi”. One of the thirty or so professional Japanese potters in the audience enquired, “What do you mean by Wabi sabi?” He laughed as he responded, “Nobody knows what Wabi sabi means!” The entire audience laughed also, but the young gentleman never realized that it was not because they agreed with him, but because of his naivety. Wabi sabi is not some mystical secret, but a basic aesthetic principal. Merely because he didn’t understand it doesn’t mean that it cannot be understood.”

From Euan Craig’s blog  11 may 2010

I would argue that we do not need Japanese words to understand these concepts, English is a remarkable language. What has been lacking in Western aesthetic discourse is an understanding of the humble, the simple. Perhaps the Shakers in the US came closest to this in the West. I remember in 1998 visiting the ethnographic museum in St Petersburg   This is a truly marvelous place, a grand imposing building, not unlike the British Museum or the V&A in London.

Inside are not the finest pieces of art and craft which form the material culture of the 1% at the top of society but the ordinary objects which formed the material culture of the 99% of Russian society. Where could I see the equivalent in the UK? Why do we always highlight the bling over and above the humble and the simple?

7 Responses to wabi sabi

  1. Lee Love May 27, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    Hi Robin! English and Japanese both share a similar strength: They both easily accommodate foreign words. While foreign words are not necessary to understand Buddhist aesthetics, there is no reason to avoid them when we don't have exact substitutions in English. Mpre later, gotta walk the dog!

  2. Richard Law May 27, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    This is very hard. But crucial. I always thought there was something amiss with Chippendale, Baroque and Rococo. It started when I went to Versailles as a youth, the whole thing struck me as more or less obscene. Most English country houses have the same effect. Some of the smaller ones less so. I think in part those big old things seem to me to involve a VAST amount of suffering by the many people who worked on making them, maybe the pyramids are the epitome. Now a little cup – harmless in its silent beauty. Only a small taste of suffering. It's hard to separate the product of work from the work that created it, and then on top, there's the space that surrounds them.

  3. miss rika May 28, 2010 at 4:35 am #

    I am interested in hearing more about this concept in English work. I am not sure I completely understand what you mean or what Euan Craig means, but I purposely bought a used spinning wheel (worn in and already loved) and I glory in the uneven, unique nature of my handspun wool.Also I believe you should do the same thing with the stinging nettle outside your workshop door as Sen Rikyu did with the morning glories; the first thing I remember when taking out Mambrino and reminiscing about where he came from is hopping from one leg to the other outside your workshop door trying to escape the nettles and still hold a coherent conversation. It is very amusing to remember.Anyway, I don't know if you know about G. M. Hopkins and his concepts of "inscape" and "instress" but it might be helpful here–as might his sonnet 'Pied Beauty' and especially the sonnet 'As kingfishers catch fire'. It is all a bit theological, but worth the time to study if you are interested in such things. Thanks for this post!

  4. R Francis May 28, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    You could start here: A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity by William S. Coperthwaiteand there is plenty in Morris, Ruskin etc and most of the modernists. They like Hopkins have a moral righteousness that can be demoralising.And you should end up at the Hamada pottery where it will be obvious to you.

  5. Robin Wood May 29, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Lee look forward to hearing more later though I guess the problem is that if we use Japanese words, some will understand, some will think they understand and some will be lost.Richard, quite agree, it seems to me we went wrong in the 18th C with conspicuous consumption. I love Haddon Hall yet Chatsworth leaves me cold.Rika, by coincidence I trimmed the nettles the day before this blog post.Richard, i really wanted to like Coperthwaite's book but found it had exactly that moral righteous overtone which put me off. In that line I prefer "voluntary simplicity" by John Lane. The photos and design in Coperthwaite's book are nice though.

  6. Richard Law May 31, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    The little stories are good too in A Handmade Life, but I agree, it does seem to me ultimately unsatisfying. I prefer the simple maxim in Voltaire's "Candide" – "Il faut cultiver notre jardin" or "Just get on with it!"

  7. Graeme November 1, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    Whew that is deep, from these comments it seems it is not so hard to get the concept of wabi, it is exemplified in the proportions, simplicity and function of quaker furniture, perhaps too the ‘craftsman’ buildings of the USA where simple joinery perfectly executed created houses and spaces with a sumptuous feel even though there was little adornment. The sabi is another matter entirely and I’m still trying to get my head around that. The only times I get to appreciate a void is when I stand on the edge of a precipice or use a gap in something to frame that which is beyond. I can appreciate the absence of glaciers in our mountain valleys but in the knowledge of what once was which I don’t think is quite the same. It seems to me that wabi sabi is a concept that has not been described in the english language and we would be richer to incorporate it as we have so many other words over the centuries.

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