Visions of Sound: Okakura Kakuzō, John La Farge, and the Transsensorial Imagination

On April 12, Professor Noriko Murai joined Boston University and shared her insights on her recent study. For more information about this event, please find:  

During the lecture, Professor Noriko Murai discussed the evocation of music and sounds in the work of the Japanese art historian Okakura Kakuzō and the American artist John La Farge. She argued that these two people shared an interest in exploring interests in the trans-sensorial senses, especially in vision and sound. The figures created in the artworks are connected visually to the music art. This lecture examined the art and music relationship and analyzed the acoustic harmony.

Her argument was persuasive became she not only used visual analysis to read the artworks but also looked at documents and books written by the artists to help her understand the work. Her argument began by explaining the how the relationship between La Farge and Okakura started. In 1886, La Farge, who was older than Okakura, met in Okakura in Japan. They spent much time together. From 1903, they included the classical instrument of Qin in their works, creating a mural representation of Confucius oil on canvas painting. Between 1903 and 1906, they painted two versions of Confucius murals. This distinguished La Farge, because he showed the philosopher Confucius with the instrument of Qin. The final version was done by 1904. Quoted from Professor Murai, La Farge “loves to talk about Confucius. He is as interesting as a novel.” She introduced Qin in the lecture. It is a seven string plucked instrument, associated with Confucius music, creating social and cosmic harmony in Confucius thought. Withholding this deep meaning, Qin became the most privileged instrument. Therefore, the inclusion of Qin in La Farge’s painting shows the idealized Chinese scholar gentleman in the artworks. The main idea that the viewer sees in his paintings is the integration of nature and man. Man and the divine, as he always shows the man in nature with no distinction, but an immersive integration of both.  

According to Professor Murai, the act of looking becomes trans-sensorial when you look at the image of Confucius as a musician. “When you see it, you are expected to hear the music being played The specific sound imaged would vary but the point is that our acoustic imagination is aroused when looking at this painting.” To her, this is tans-sensorial. By integrating the music and painting, she argued that the what is natural and what has been made by man is blended. The viewer feels the nature and enjoys the choice of art. Okukura suggested that La Farge connects Confucius with nature and the music, which resemble the Confucius images in paintings with Okukura.

Later in the lecture, Professor Murai also critiqued this relationship between Okukura and La Farge by introducing what Okukura was doing during the period when La Farge was creating the murals. She mentioned that, at the same period, Okukura was working on his book about his aesthetic manifesto and shared experience that otherwise divides people. The meaning of the book was a dedication to La Farge, which was explained as a gesture of reciprocity as La Farge dedicated his things to Okokura. This shows the potential of shared aesthetic experience of people who are otherwise divided – the sharing of cultural things through art. In the fifth chapter of his book “The Book of Tea,” the instrument becomes a metaphor for the representation of art. There was even a declared interest of La Farge to Daoism, instead of Confucianism, arguing that Daoism was the most relevant for the changing of art; thus, promoted a more individualist attitude.

During the lecture, Professor Murai kept emphasized art as a language and all forms of art are the signs of meaning. It is necessary for the viewer to interact with it in order to understand it. I think what she meant was that the careful analysis of the artworks was critical when we are reading the artworks. Overall, I think her argument was persuasive and her intended audience was probably students and scholars in the similar field. She was sharing her recent research results with us.

artJenny Maart, Japanese, painting