In the last few years I've been endeavouring to better understand the concept of beauty which has been taking so many shapes and forms throughout the years, only to find out that it can be such a relative idea, determined by geographic and cultural boundaries.
What is beauty?
The most famous pearl of wisdom that comes into mind when I think of beauty is Margaret Wolfe Hungerford’s "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" which states that the way we perceive beauty is purely a personal affair… thus the eye of the Western public is used to see beauty differently ….differently from the Japanese viewpoint for instance. Whilst in the western culture, dominated by the aesthetic values of Ancient Greece that praised permanence, grandiosity, symmetry, and perfection, beauty was synonym with opulence, in the Japanese traditional culture whether it’s painting, architecture, Haiku, literature, tea ceremony, Ikebana, even culinary art, the two defining characteristics are simplicity and restraint.
wabi sabi or “the art of impermanence” and restrained beauty
Wabi sabi aesthetic has its origins in the ancient Chinese Taoism and Zen Buddhism - adept of the contemplation of the world through emptiness, impermanence and solitude, but it was not until the 15th century that the concept takes shape in Japan. Here, this philosophy finds a perfect ground to grow in the isolation of this small island inclined to introspection and calm, away from the rest of the world.
“the moon so pure a wandering monk carries it across the sand” Matsuo Basho
Furthermore, it went on to influence every aspect of the traditional Japanese lifestyle including the tea ceremony or cha-no-yu - the art of preparing and serving tea. “Who would then deny that when I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it and that this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space?”― D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture. When we speak of the Tea and its famous Ritual, another important name comes into my mind, that of its undeniable master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). In the Book of Tea - (1906) Okakura Kakuzo described how Rikyu used simple local homestyle utensils during the Tea ceremony in a tearoom dominated by an unpretentious simplicity which was the symbol of good taste. Apparently austere and solitary, Wabi Sabi mirrors “the perpetual flow of time” and reveals beauty in a different light. It doesn’t aim for perfection because there isn’t such thing as perfection, instead accepts the realities of life such as imperfection and impermanence. According to Leonard Koren, there is an undeniable melancholic beauty in everything unrefined, and evanescent which allures one into a odd world of faded colours and unusual shapes, touched by decay.
“Instinctively I was drawn to the beauty of things coarse and unrefined; things rich in raw texture and rough tactility. Often these things are reactive to the effects of weathering and human treatment. I loved the tentative, delicate traces left by the sun, the wind, the heat, and the cold. I was fascinated by the language of rust, tarnish, warping, cracking, shrinkage, scarring, peeling, and other forms of attrition visibly recorded.” Leonard Koren Wabi-sabi has the power to reveal beauty through imperfect, impermanent and incomplete as some things gain value in time. Could, then our eye penetrate deep inside to identify its hidden beauty? Head empty of thoughts, a contemplative attitude and our whole mind and soul will be overflown by Eternal Beauty.
"Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” David Hume In architecture and design, the Minimalist movement is another typical example of how traditional Japanese design and wabi-sabi, came to influence the aesthetics of the modern civilisation. In minimalism, only essential facts were preserved and useless elements, eliminated: no flourishes or decorations. Like with the traditional Japanese aesthetics, the most important characteristic of Minimalism was functionality seen as a form of freedom. Focusing on essence and characterised by clean lines and simple forms, the minimalism emerged in the 20th century in architecture but soon extended to other artistic disciplines, such as design, music, painting, and the digital arts. Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s famous quote “Less is more” became the mantra of the minimalist movement and continued to influence future generations of designers until today. In 2014, interior designer Axel Vervoordt together with the architect Tatsuro Miki and artisan Shiro Tsujimura, exquisitely captured the wabi philosophy in the TriBeCa Penthouse of the Greenwich Hotel in New York. Here, the space abounds with reclaimed fabrics and materials modest and simple in form but rich in texture and essence that encourages the introspection and contemplative mood. The undisputed presence of wabi sabi in today’s lifestyle and design is translated into the use of “patina”, soft, neutral and subdued colour schemes, irregular shapes and textures, as well as the need for space and uncluttered interiors. Suddenly, rough texture and raw materials are back in fashion and many of the contemporary trends such as distressed-looking flooring, jute rugs or raffia wallpapers, could be interpreted as testimonials of the wabi presence in today's lifestyle and trends.
In fashion, Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto or Issey Miyake who pioneered the avant-garde fashion in the 1980s, witnessed the influence of the Japanese aesthetic principles like Wabi-sabi and the understated beauty of simple things. Furthermore, wabi-sabi could be seen as an indirect influence for Vivienne Westwood’s punk creations in the 1970/80s, who mainstreamed worn and distressed clothing which later become cool and fashionable. As a conclusion, it's worth mentioning here Steve Jobs and his love of simplicity and minimalism, who had proclaimed the Japanese Zen Buddhism as being his undisputed aesthetic influence, reflected into the Apple goods which have become iconic and the most sought after mass products of the 21st century, continuing to shake the grounds of our Greek-Roman aesthetic values and dictating the taste of the pop culture.
“The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto.” Steve Jobs