For the last few weeks I have explored the idea of Beauty as related to the Church and the art world. We looked at a definition as well as the source of Beauty, and I argued for a dialogue to be opened between the Church and the art world that would be mutually beneficial. But is there an actual visible expression of this kind of dialogue? Is there a place where theology and art meet? These “diametrically opposed” ideas, one conservative, the other liberal, can they live in harmony? Is there a practical example of an art that is both obedient and transgressive at the same time?
Makoto “Mako” Fujimura has been doing art for several decades. He grew up both in the United States and Japan. He studied in both nations, doing his undergraduate work at Bucknell in Pennsylvania and his graduate work in Japan. The style he studied and does to this day is the thousand year old method called “Nihonga” which essentially means “Japanese style painting.
Nihonga is a method of painting where mineral pigments and precious metals, like gold, silver, or platinum are used to create beautiful art. The pigments are crushed and mixed with an animal glue and applied to a strong paper called “cloud skin” in English. This process takes a long time with the application of layer after layer of mineral or metal. It is not only time consuming but also expensive – some, including Fujimura himself, would even say extravagant – in price to make a piece of Nihonga. When done correctly and expertly though, the minerals in a piece will reflect and even refract the light causing pieces to change before the eyes. Over time the metals used will burnish and layers may even “come off” revealing different colors and thereby transforming the piece into a new piece of art.
It was while he was in Japan that Fujimura began to experience a crisis that led him on a pilgrimage. His crisis was similar to what the art world experienced in the 90’s, a crisis in beauty. He writes in River Grace:
The problem that I could not overcome with Art and religion is that the more I focused on myself, the less I could find myself. A schism grew inside between who I wanted to be and what I did. I wanted to love my wife, but I saw, more and more, the distance between us. Art as self-expression became a wedge in our relationship. Meanwhile, every day, I sought higher transcendence through the extravagant materials. I found success in expression through Nihonga materials. And yet the weight of beauty I saw in the materials began to crush my own heart. I could not justify the use of extravagance if I found my heart unable to contain their glory. The more I used them, the moodier and more restless I became. Finding beauty in nature and art, I did not have a “shelf” on which to place that beauty inside my heart.
The best example of his crisis is in a story I’ve heard him tell multiple times of when he was studying in Japan. One day a mentor and friend came into his studio to see what he was working on. When seeing a piece that Fujimura had out he exclaimed, “That’s so beautiful it’s almost frightening” and he walked out, leaving Fujimura in the heavy silence of such a powerful statement. Fujimura says he destroyed the painting because he had no ability to connect such an amazing compliment to what he felt inside himself…no beauty at all. How could someone who isn’t beautiful, create such beauty? Perhaps Fujimura was sensing the loss of van Balthasar’s “three sisters”.
It was from a moment like that and his discovery of the poet William Blake that led Fujimura to conclude that the only source of such beauty is God himself – incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Where Fujimura’s heart couldn’t carry the beauty and extravagance he created, God’s heart could.
But what is it about his art that is a crossroads of theology and art?
First, you see it in his chosen method. Both the distant past and immediate present are apparent in his work. The school of painting, Nihonga has been around for over a thousand years. Fuimura – in his medium honors the past by utilizing this tradition. But he uses it in a very contemporary way. At first glance his paintings would seem unintelligible because he uses colorful swipes and pooled water stains to attain his goal – a very contemporary style; past and present are together.
Christianity is similar in honoring the past and present. The past is respected because of reliance upon historical record of the life of Christ and even the blessings that God has bestowed in the past. The present is also important to Christianity, living for God and others is encouraged over and over again much like the layers in one of Fujimura’s paintings. The Bible encourages thanking God always for what He has done in the past in order to live in the present.
Second, theology and beauty cross in Fujimura’s work in the technique he uses to progress from an empty canvas to a completed work. Multiple times he has described the method he goes through as a meditative prayer. Many times he has the Bible open and near a piece he is working on almost as if he wants to lift the words from the page change them to a color and swipe them on the paper. He has even “hid” Scripture in his works under layers of mineral or metal where you can try to read them immediately or wait until a layer disappears before you see them (this could take decades or centuries even).
Third, you see the crossroads in the subjects of his work. Two examples come to mind – a series of works he did many years ago and a recent series that was produced. The first series he calls his “grace” series which he completed in the mid 1990’s. Many of these works (and I think others since then he titles with the word “grace”) are loosely based on Simone Weil’s book Gravity and Grace. Weil had her own encounter with God that affected much of her later writings, and those writings have impacted Fujimura’s own ideas that he put to paper.
A more recent series that Fujimura has done that is indicative of a meeting between theology and beauty is his Rouault series. The Museum of Biblical Art recently showed work by the late 19th early 20th century painter George Rouault. Alongside Rouault’s work the MoBIA commissioned Fujimura to do paintings inspired by the Rouault works to be shown. Rouault was a Catholic Christian in France who was trained as a stained glass maker but turned to painting instead. His works are primitive, with thick lines and simple subjects, but striking in their emotional expression because of the subjects he chose.
Finally a last example of Fujimura’s work being a crossroads for theology and Beauty is his own words. There are many words I could put here of his writings over the years but these short lines seemed most appropriate as they were written in the days after 9/11 – a time of particular stress for all including the Fujimura’s.
Create we must, and respond to this dark hour. The world needs artists who dedicate themselves to communicate the images of Shalom. Jesus is the Shalom. Shalom is not just the absence of war, but wholeness, healing and joy of fullness of humanity. We need to collaborate within our communities to respond individually to give to the world our Shalom vision.
So Fujimura, by his work and his words, is a crossroads for theology and Beauty. He is remaining true to his conclusions about what is true about the world and yet at the same time fully engaged in the current social climate and how to influence for positive change. The art world and the church would benefit from inviting Fujimura, and other artists like him, into their communities to speak to how beauty, art, and God make for better human beings.
Beauty and its pursuit (art) are important. Knowing where beauty comes from is important – perhaps even essential for human thriving. If beauty only resided in the heart and mind of a human being and nowhere else, then it would be conceivable that beauty would be anything a human being would put their hand to – good or ill.
From a Judeo-Christian worldview the source of all things good, true and beautiful is the triune God of the Bible. If He made all things, then he must be the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty; it is from his being that these things flow. It is from His character that we can find both the objective and subjective aspects of beauty. If there was not a transcendental source for goodness, truth, and beauty then it would be difficult to find any basis for life other than what I think or the next guy thinks or the next guy…or the next. And then all we would have is noise, not beauty.
We believe that what is beautiful in this world…possesses a total dimension that also calls for moral decision. If this is so, then from the beautiful the way must also lead into the religious dimension which itself includes man’s definitive answer to the question about God and, indeed, his answer to the question God poses to him.
 Some of Weil’s thoughts on her encounter with God can be found in her book Waiting for God. There is debate as to whether she was actually a Christian or just a dabbler, I have not read enough of her work to draw a conclusion, but even then it is not up to me.