Illuminations and Humanities

World-renowned artist, Makoto Fujiumura, was welcomed by Duke University on March 31st as a Visiting Artist by the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies and as part of the Visiting Artist Residency in collaboration with Duke Divinity School.

Fujimura is an artist trained in Nihonga, a Japanese form of painting dating back to the 8th century. As a contemporary Nihonga artist, his work broke from the traditional masters and is a synthesis of the ancient technique and modern influence.

On Thursday, he met with students in the Visual Studies and Visual Arts courses and gave a demonstration on the gilding technique in Nihonga painting. On Friday, Fujimura gave two lectures at the Divinity School about his new project to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of the publishing of the King James Bible: an illumination of  The Four Holy Gospels.

The craft of illuminating manuscripts is ancient and its purpose has been described as decorative and a process using gold or silver, or, in some Eastern traditions, paint made from the pigments of earths and minerals. In the simplest sense, the visual image is meant to give light to or illumine the written text.  The Lindisfarne Gospels are an example of a traditional illuminated Gospel.

What’s different about what Fujimura does is that his illuminations are not traditionally recognizable images but abstract renderings. He has taken the Nihonga technique of waiting for layers of color to dry to a new level by creating worlds rather than figures – but the process of waiting is the same as in the ancient work and something that Fujimura says provides the space to meditate deeply on the text.

It is here in this quiet waiting that time takes hold of repetition, burrows its way into the mind and becomes a way of learning. This is not unlike the traditional Humanities education where the classics were read: Plato and Aristotle ingested so that students would have a canvas on which to shape their newly formed and agile ability to reason.

In modern terminology, education and the humanities is about ingesting new research, finding meaning in an unfamiliar text, taking time to ponder its meaning, and seeking out others who will grapple and argue with the contents that challenge the way one sees. What one does with ones findings can be illuminating not only to the self, but also to others.

Makoto Fujiumura stands in the gap between his given text and naming the meanings that emerge while illuminating them. This spiritual path is what he depicts in his paintings: a place of elegiac color and opaque and translucent light.

(Illumination from the French Book of Hours, ca 1400)

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