Nearly a decade ago now, Lisa and I went to visit an art exhibit at a private gallery on Manhattan. I had recently become acquainted with the Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura, and I wanted to see his work for myself.
The exhibition was called “Images of Grace,” and we were dazzled to discover a gallery full of some of the most beautiful paintings we had ever seen. Fujimura has mastered the Japanese method of Nihonga, in which mineral pigments and precious metals are layered onto thick paper. He uses this ancient Asian technique to produce contemporary works of art in an abstract, Western style.
The effect is dramatic. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has asked: “What is it that makes Makoto Fujimura’s paintings so unmistakable, so memorable, and so haunting?” Here is his answer:
The splendor of the medium, of course. There is nothing like it in the West. Fujimura has revived the medieval Japanese Nihonga technique, in which the artist takes ground up minerals, along with gold and silver, and applies them with hide glue to paper, layer upon layer… . The colors have a startling immediacy. Gold and silver, azurite and cinnabar, even oyster shell, come into their own. Rather than being used to circumscribe represented reality, they are coaxed into revealing the colored splendor of their own reality. But while the overall surface is devoid of sheen and shine, the mineral particles themselves are minute refractors; one notices a mysterious subdued sparkle embedded in the surface as one moves back and forth. The colors recede and advance in accord with their intrinsic character, giving depth to the space. And the density of layering makes them change as the light varies and one’s perspective alters. The surface is mysteriously alive [Nicholas Wolterstorff, in the preface to Makoto Fujimura, The Splendor of the Medium, Poiema Press, p. 3].
These words describe, far better than anything that I could say, the shimmering majesty of Fujimura’s work. But of course talking about the paintings is nothing compared to seeing them. And here is my joy: that recently we were able to obtain prints of three paintings from the artist and now we enjoy them every day in our home.
The large print in our living room is of a painting called “Grace Psalm.” I first fell in love with this painting when I saw it in the Dillon Gallery back in 1996. It was already sold, but I like to think that if it had still been available, I would have gone into debt to buy it.
How shall I describe the painting? Unjustly, I am sure, but I will try anyway. The painting is roughly three feet by five feet (the original is even larger). Its colors, which come from crushed azurite, range from pale to medium blue, darker in places. There is also a graceful, slender white-gray lily in the painting, leaning to the left.
Then there is a biblical text at the top, faintly written in gold. This is appropriate because in the traditional symbolism of Nihonga, gold stands for eternity and transcendence—like the eternal Word of God. The biblical text is painted over almost like a palimpsest—a manuscript that has been written over and thus can only be read with care. The text comes from Psalm 42:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my
food day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
among the festive throng (Ps. 42:1–4; NIV).
“Grace Psalm” offers divine drink to thirsty souls. Whereas the text expresses an unsatisfied longing, the painting itself holds out the hope of peace and rest. The lily swims in liquid grace, conveying the serenity and repose of a satisfied soul. Perhaps it also reminds us of the resurrection, for this is a common symbol in Christian art. Psalm 42 is not a resurrection psalm, but the resurrection is the ultimate goal of the psalmist’s quest. After all, it is the risen Christ who says, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17). As our eyes drink in the azurite hues of “Grace Psalm,” we are encouraged to believe that this gift is offered to us as much as to anyone else.
I wish I had time to tell you about the other two prints, but I don’t right now, except to say that they are called “January Hour—Epiphany” and “Sacrificial Grace,” and that they evoke the incarnation and the atonement of Jesus Christ. Be sure to see them the next time you come for a visit!
This is the first time we have purchased serious artwork for our home, and I’m glad that we did, for so many reasons. I’m glad because the paintings are beautiful, which may be reason enough. But they also communicate deep spiritual truths which are a joy to the soul. And they are a wonderful way to begin conversations about things that really matter with guests to our home, whether or not they happen to be Christians. I am glad, too, that in a small way we are doing something to support a wonderful Christian artist, and to promote a Christian appreciation for the arts among our family and friends. I suppose that art can only reach its full potential to give glory to God and awaken a longing for his grace when it becomes a part of our daily lives.
[To learn more about Makoto Fujimura’s artwork, visit either his own website (www.makotofujimura.com) or the website for the International Arts Movement that he helped to found (www.iamny.org) or the Dillon Gallery.]
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org