In addition to my fear of the dark, my fascination with darkness was also triggered by paintings of Pierre Bonnard, the painter of Mediterranean light and a Japonist is his early years. What I liked about the paintings was the sensation of things, objects slowly appearing and taking form. It has the same effect one can experience waking up in the morning and trying to focus. Something similar, but slower, happens when your eyes get used to the dark, and things begin to appear and take their approximate, doubting shape.
In Japan, the light/dark aesthetics are different from those in the West. You see it in household objects, architecture, colours and lighting. Junichiro Tanizaki (a Dostoyevsky fan) wrote an essay on this subject in 1933, In praise of shadows. (note to add [?]: shadow as a part of personal space, a person’s shadow in Japanese myths). Tanizaki writes about the cruel flattening effect of electric light and the typically Japanese preference for (half-)darkness. Indirect light and gradations of shadow give the object (or a person) a chance to postpone its presence; the process of looking is slowed down, attention is increased. The lack of light works suggestively; it changes the feeling of depth and gives an object a different kind of gravity, an inner glow (if I may call it that).
It is interesting to note that Tanizaki believes that the preference for (half-)darkness is built in historically and is a part of national character: not to try to improve everything unsatisfactory like western people do, but to accept the deficiency of light and find it beautiful by acceptance. To give more attention to subtle changes in the shadows that appear from clouds passing the moon, tree leaves moving, the flickering of a candle – it is never completely dark; the darkness is visible, flickering, shimmering. Decoration is functional – every gold speck on a folding screen or a rice bowl catches and reflects light. At the Noh play I went to the musicians were sitting on a rotating plateau on the side of the stage; the wall behind them was silver on one side and gold on the other – the moon and the sun; the subtle light change influenced the atmosphere of the scene.
Japanese women used to blacken their teeth traditionally (ohaguro) – black gleaming teeth were considered beautiful because it made the skin look whiter, and it was good for the teeth as well (iron oxide). Apparently a similar custom shortly existed in Russia in the 16th century – Muscovite ladies used a mercurial black substance to paint their teeth.
Tanizaki imagines how it might have been for a man in the old times to see a woman – always in semi-darkness behind a folding screen, the suggestiveness of her shadow through washi paper, blackened teeth, the dark hollows of her sleeves and the neck of a kimono – the darkness swallowing the woman or oozing out of her.
He is just as lyrical about pearl-like rice glimmering in a black varnished bowl, and about the deep colour of soy sauce. Tanizaki wanted to eat his meal only by candlelight.
There is another poetic passage about the contemplative atmosphere of a Japanese toilet, but I will skip that part (although in my summer house there is a similar ‘room with a view’ surrounded by the sound of crickets).
I saw the wall paintings of Nijo Castle in Kyoto on a rainy day. It was a revelation to see those panels (used as an inspiration for the film Inception) in natural light and in their original habitat, not in a museum. It was as if I had only seen animals in a zoo before, and thought that this was where they lived. I understand, of course, why natural light can be a museum’s enemy and that most of contemporary art is meant for white neutral spaces and not for candle-lit churches or taverns. Talking about an animal-friendly zoo: in 2006 the record number of visitors attending an art exhibition in Tokyo was broken during the show of Japanese masterpieces from the Price collection. Joe Price attributed this explosion of visitors to his experiment with the lighting. The lights kept changing every 3 minutes to imitate day- or moonlight – to show ‘how art changes if the light changes’. This exhibition also served as a rediscovery of Itō Jakuchū, the star of the Price collection – a masterly versatile, eccentric and strangely enough forgotten painter of the Edo period. Definitely a man to google if you don’t know him yet. See VIDEO.