The Eyes Think

You look up again, and each small step forward unveils a newly unfamiliar scene.

July 7, 2011

    A JAPANESE STROLL GARDEN plays out along a rambling path. Stepping stones, uneven and irregular, insistently demand a downward glance. You look up again, and each small step forward unveils a newly unfamiliar scene.

    The finest stroll garden is found in the one-time capital of Kyoto. Within is a sprawling, seventeenth-century structure, the Katsura Detached Palace, and a scattering of teahouses with fairy-tale names: Pine Harp Pavilion, Arbor for the Admiration of Blossoms, Shelter for a Laughing Heart. There is an intricate gate of bamboo and bark, a platform for contemplating the moon. A tiny temple.

    Only a few cultural icons emerge that are, over and over, reinterpreted and reappropriated, each time offering as much insight into the era as the original itself: Leonardo's Last Supper, say, or Shakespeare's Hamlet. Katsura, far away, its interior unattainable (tours are arranged by application only and limited to the garden), is architecture's twentieth-century touchstone, its legend launched by the German architect Bruno Taut's first brief visit in May 1933. Taut claimed (immodestly, and unmindful of his Japanese hosts) to have rediscovered Katsura, declaring its simplicity an antecedent of the modern, monochromatic International Style then fighting for a foothold in Japan. Scores of books have since been published on Katsura, two dozen incorporating at least an English introduction. Each offers renewed insight, each includes new perspectives or new scholarship. Walter Gropius, Kenzo Tange, and Arata Isozaki followed in Taut's footsteps, adding to accounts by other architects once well known, but now nearly forgotten everywhere but in Japan.

    Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Katsura's most important photographer, was born in San Francisco in 1921, and studied architecture and photography in a mid-century Chicago intoxicated by German Modernism. Soon thereafter settled in Japan, he is today one of only a few hundred acclaimed there as a "Person of Cultural Merit." The aging artist also appears intent on establishing appreciation of his work in the nation of his birth, first donating 250 prints to Chicago's Art Institute and then, after coming to know Yasufumi Nakamori, a Japanese-born Assistant Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, offering that institution even more. The museum staged three small shows of Ishimoto's art over a fast 15 months. The last, from June to September 2010, was a kind of encore, returning to a topic for which Ishimoto is best known — Katsura — with a handsome catalogue entitled Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture: Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro.

    Over 50 years, five beautiful books on the imperial retreat have been built on Ishimoto's images. His earliest work, Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture (1960), illustrated the architecture as unembroidered, but three decades later he and Isozaki performed an about-face (in the 1987 Katsura Villa) and instead underscored Katsura's opulence. And in this latest book the story shifts from the architecture to the artist, to the photographer.

    Almost every one of the dozens of books already authored on Katsura is lushly illustrated, often employing the best technologies of its time, and the MFAH's catalogue, printed in rich tritones that fill the page, is no exception. While many books have featured the work of famous photographers, not one is as esteemed as that which Ishimoto initiated in his youth. Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture went into seven printings and was afterward reissued in an altered form. Costing fifteen dollars when it first came out, a pristine, slip-covered original edition will set you back at least ten times that now. Weirdly, its text by Kenzo Tange and Walter Gropius was inaccurate and uninformative on the topic of Katsura: the German Modernist's introduction sketched out impressions from a single summer in Japan, while Tange's idiosyncratic anthropology of antediluvian eras was entirely irrelevant.

    Ishimoto initially visited Katsura when ordinary Japanese could not. It was the spring of 1953, only a week after his return to Japan, and he was accompanied by Arthur Drexler from New York's Museum of Modern Art. For the artist, it was an opportunity to scout out sites for a serial photographic survey. Ishimoto returned the following May, working daily from nine o'clock in the morning until four thirty each afternoon for a month to produce 300 fine, large-format photographs. Amazingly, nearly all were used in the books that followed, including the MFAH catalogue.

    Influenced by Bauhaus émigrés, Ishimoto's unusually impassive early work contrasted with contemporary conventions in Japan, its striking style "austere and intellectual." Young, unknown, only recently returned to the nation of his ancestors, and hoping to ensure publication of his photographs, Ishimoto approached an internationally acclaimed architect for an accompanying essay.

    Instead, Nakamori asserts, Tange took charge. Using newly available material in this latest installment to the story, Nakamori writes that it was Tange who coldly cropped the powerful photography so that it might pack an even greater punch, not Bauhaus-trained book designer Herbert Bayer, to whom the cropping is usually attributed. The 1960 volume condensed and intensified an argument already established by Bruno Taut: Katsura as Mondrian-like, its dark frame set against snowy sh?ji screens. In Modernism, aggressive editing has at times achieved unusual and elegant abstraction: Ezra Pound severely truncated T.S. Eliot's "sprawling, chaotic" poem The Waste Land, yielding a masterwork; editor Gordon Lish chopped a Raymond Carver story to only a third of its initial length. Nakamori advances an instance of severe pruning from within the world of art.

    Katsura's 1,716 stepping stones seem to have piqued the photographer's interest. Initially, Ishimoto had attempted to lure Sutemi Horiguchi into writing the introduction for his book by showing the esteemed architect only his photographs of the stepping stones. One-sixth of the 130 images in the 1960 edition foregrounded this feature, but now under Ishimoto's greater influence, the new catalogue even more assertively spotlights these stones, opening with seven shots of them and ending with another. But the strongest evidence of Tange's overbearing editing is exhibited on the catalogue's cover: printed on clear plastic, two colored rectangles frame a fragmentary photograph, but when the book is unsheathed, the inscrutable artwork is instantly understood as an interior. Illuminating as this example is of Tange's heavy hand, Ishimoto's original image was even more unsettling (a point Nakamori does not pursue), as the photograph's center is seemingly inked out. Even on its cover, this catalogue claims to be righting a wrong on behalf of an elderly artist, unhappily calling out his early exploitation by an influential architect.

    Yet — as the book ultimately makes clear — the tale of excessive overediting is almost entirely untrue. Beyond the cover example and a few places where Tange cut out a gabled roof, there is relatively little to corroborate the complaint. Instead, of the 82 images of Katsura in the MFAH catalogue, more than half were in the original 1960 edition — even sometimes in the same sequence — and many more are close in character. Any cropping evident, in spite of Ishimoto's apparent quibbling, is modest and mutual: the museum catalogue exhibits an inclination to take a little off the top, while half a century ago Tange shaved the sides.

    In fact, this catalogue is an homage to that first and still esteemed 1960 book. In contrast to the many on Katsura that emphasized its beauty with their exaggerated proportion and excessive size, three — and only three — are compactly square: the 1960 volume involving Tange, Gropius and Ishimoto; a looser and less successful 1972 revision; and the current catalogue. (Each, also notably, out of Yale University Press.) The new catalogue's insightful design, by Daphne Geismar, is deferential to this history, even employing Herbert Bayer's suggested typeface when Tange did not.

    Gratifyingly, the MFAH edition also emulates the particular source of the 1960 book's success. Unlike other volumes, Tange's edition emphasized an idealized architecture in scenographic choreography. Its essays were of no import then and are of little now. In spite of Nakamori's interesting additions to the ever-evolving scholarship on Katsura, it is Ishimoto's artwork, once again, that matters. If anything, this catalogue, eschewing maps or any attempts to explain Katsura's architecture, is even more elegantly enigmatic.

    At Katsura, claimed Bruno Taut, "the eyes think." This new edition exquisitely illustrates an idea that, from the start, guided Ishimoto's art.


    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!