The present article is based on my previously published work, which focused on cultural exchanges between Johannes Itten and Japanese artists.
It’s widely known that Johannes Itten had an interest in Asian philosophy and art. In the diary Itten kept during his period in Vienna—where between 1916 and 1919 he ran a private art school—he mentions Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, the Buddha and Buddhism, as well as Japanese literature.1
Itten had a series of fruitful encounters with Japanese artists while leading his Itten-Schule art institute in Berlin (1926–34). Through painstaking research conducted over the years I succeeded in uncovering much relevant material, and have elucidated the details of these exchanges in articles published in 1993, 1995, and 2000.2 As a result of this research, I have been able to ascertain that these exchanges took place primarily between 1931 and 1933. They were as follows: In 1931 Nanga painter Shounan Mizukoshi taught Japanese ink painting in Nanga style at the Itten-Schule;3 in 1932 Jiyu Gakuen students Mitsuko Yamamuro and Kazuko Imai (Married name: Sasagawa) studied there;4 and finally, in 1933 the painter and poet Yumeji Takehisa also taught Japanese ink painting (including Nanga style) at Itten’s invitation.5
First, I will discuss how I uncovered the history behind Shounan Mizukoshi’s appointment as a teacher of Japanese ink painting at the Itten-Schule.
1. Itten and Nanga painter Shounan Mizukoshi: their relationship as seen through Kuniyoshi Obara’s documents
In 1996, while in Switzerland conducting research on Itten’s diary from his Berlin period (1926–1934), I discovered a postcard of Shounan Mizukoshi’s work Chikubushima Island and a small leaflet printed in Japanese, attached to his diary.6 The Japanese leaflet contained an announcement commemorating the departure for Europe of the painters Suiun Komuro, Shounan Mizukoshi, and Kouho Hiroshima.
After researching relevant documents in Japan, I discovered these artists had left for Europe in connection with the Japanese painting exhibition Ausstellung von Werken lebender japanischer Maler, held at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin from 17 January through 1 March 1931.7
That Itten learned Japanese ink painting in Nanga style (a painting style that first flourished in the Edo period, influenced by Chinese literati painting) from Shounan Mizukoshi, who taught at the Itten-Schule for half a year, had remained a mystery until I confirmed this in 1999 by locating relevant statements and documents belonging to Kuniyoshi Obara8 (an influential Japanese education reformer described in detail below). Unearthing these materials allowed me to solve the mystery. This entailed extending my research area beyond art and art education to education in general. Until I mentioned them in my article of 2000, Kuniyoshi Obara’s statements had never been referred to in research on Itten or the Itten-Schule.
Kuniyoshi Obara, an educator who promoted “Zenjin” pedagogy (a form of education nurturing individual talent through a balanced, holistic approach), founded a private school named Tamagawa Gakuen in 1929. In 1999, during the course of my research, I located Obara’s travel diary, as well as a copy of Tagebuch von Johannes Itten (Johannes Itten’s Diary) kept by Obara amongst his Nachlass. The travel diary, a private journal where Obara recorded events and thoughts during his trip, contains descriptions of Itten and the Itten-Schule. The copy of Johannes Itten’s Diary (published in 1930) that Obara brought back from Germany contains a dedication from Itten, addressed to Obara. Itten’s dedication provides evidence of his having encountered Obara and that, further, he was already familiar with and understood Obara’s ideas as an educator.9
I was able to establish three facts from Obara’s materials:10 on 1 April 1931, Obara observed Shounan Mizukoshi teaching Japanese ink painting in Nanga style to Johannes Itten and his students at the residence of Arekisan (Alexander) Nagai, a commercial attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Berlin; second, Obara visited the Itten-Schule; third, Mizukoshi taught Nanga at Itten-Schule for six months.
According to Obara, Itten sensed an impasse in Western painting and was zealously studying Nanga. When, for example, teaching, how to draw a lily, as Obara relates in his writings, Mizukoshi would start with the root. From the root to the petals, he observed the movement of the lily’s lines and shapes, trying to grasp its significance. Mizukoshi taught that one cannot draw a lily without fully comprehending that a lily symbolizes modesty.11
Since the aforementioned teaching method by Mizukoshi bears a striking similarity to that of Yi Jing, a Japanese painter described by Georg Muche, it is highly likely that they are the same person,12 as I asserted in 2000.
Additionally, in the year after Mizukoshi taught at the Itten-Schule, the school’s prospectus for 1932–33 included the heading, Pinselzeichnen nach chinesische-japanischer Art (Brush painting using the Chinese-Japanese method) within its basic educational program.13 Thus, Itten incorporated brush painting within the basic curriculum at the Itten-Schule.
Itten was himself incorporating ink painting exercises in the classes he taught in 1932, a fact I will discuss in greater detail below. I verified this through materials and testimony by Jiyu Gakuen students, Mitsuko Yamamuro and Kazuko Imai (Sasagawa), who studied at the Itten-Schule for three months in 1932.14
It thus became apparent that in his classes during 1932 Itten was already incorporating the ink painting knowledge acquired from Shounan Mizukoshi only a year before.
On the other hand, Mizukoshi told his students in Japan that, following his European trip, he had become convinced that Asian ink painting possessed outstanding originality. Describing the way Itten learned from Mizukoshi, in his writings from 1931, Obara expressed the belief that what was needed in Japanese education was greater emphasis on Japanese ink painting.15 It can be said that Obara and Mizukoshi each reaffirmed for themselves the value of Japanese ink painting following their encounters with Itten in Berlin.
2. Nexus between Itten and Japanese painters: Arekisan (Alexander) Nagai
It was at the residence of Arekisan (Alexander) Nagai that Itten,Mizukoshi and Obara first met together in 1931.16 Alexander Nagai was the son of Nagayoshi Nagai, known as a notable Japanese pharmacologist and the first president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Japan. While interviewing Alexander Nagai’s son Teigi Nagai at his home, I learned more about the Japanese ink painting classes at Nagai’s Berlin residence.17 According to his son, Alexander Nagai loved art and painting so much he carried paint around with him, invited Japanese painters residing in Europe to his Berlin home, and held weekly classes on Japanese ink painting for Germans. On the first floor of Nagai’s home was a large room with a ping-pong table. He would cover it with a cloth to use for these classes. On class days Teigi Nagai would help grind the inksticks to prepare the inks. In the period Mizukoshi was in Berlin, he was accompanied by a German female interpreter. Participants were mesmerized by the ink and rough brushes of Nanga. During our conversation, Teigi went on to recount how Mizukoshi taught Nanga both at Nagai’s residence and the Itten-Schule, and described Mizukoshi’s stay in Berlin.
As described above, it became apparent through the interview with Teigi Nagai that Alexander Nagai played a crucial role in introducing Itten, Mizukoshi and Obara to each other. He played the same role of go-between for Itten and Yumeji Takehisa, the second Japanese painter who taught at the Itten-Schule.
3. Johannes Itten and Yumeji Takehisa
Yumeji Takehisa18 taught Japanese ink painting at the Itten-Schule from February through June 1933. According to Shunjiro Aoe, a playwright and critic who wrote a study on Yumeji, the painter held Japanese ink painting classes twice weekly, on Tuesday and Friday afternoon from 1 to 3pm. Shigero Imai, a commercial attaché at the Japanese Embassy who worked with Alexander Nagai, served as interpreter during Yumeji’s classes at the Itten-Schule.
Yumeji taught Japanese ink painting through workshops and lectures. In his classes Yumeji created ink painting works as examples for the students. He also penned textbooks on Japanese painting for his lectures at the Itten-Schule in Japanese, which Alexander Nagai then translated into German. Yumeji wrote two textbooks—Der Begriff der japanischen Malerei (The Concept of Japanese painting) and Ueber die Linien (On Lines).
In 1993, I analyzed the characteristics of Yumeji’s lecture through the lens of his textbooks’ contents, observing a connection to Itten’s art education concept.19 Later, in 1994, I visited the home of Itten’s wife Anneliese in Zurich, who showed me Johannes Itten’s Nachlass and Yumeji’s works (textbooks and Japanese ink paintings) given to Itten by Yumeji.20 Therefore, I understood that Itten valued Yumeji’s works throughout his life. The ink paintings and some of the documents I found were subsequently displayed in exhibitions.
As I have pointed out in previous scholarly work, in his textbooks Yumeji mentions the link between Japanese painting, the Japanese tea ceremony and the way of Zen. While introducing episodes on Sen no Rikyu’s tea ceremony and Basho Matsuo’s Haikai poetry, he pointed out the commonality between the spirituality and values of Japanese culture and Japanese painting. For example, Yumeji pointed out the aesthetic sense of avoiding duplication and the stimulating effect on the imagination of staring at a blank space where nothing is painted. He also taught the characteristics of Japanese ink painting where lines are used as a way of expressing internal feelings.
It is remarkable that Yumeji Takehisa refer to the philosophy of tea ceremony and Zen, and describe the similarity between traditional Japanese culture and art. As is well known, Zen thought is reflected in much of Japanese culture. Yumeji embraced Japanese aesthetics—namely the sense of beauty that eschews duplication and seeks unity (as seen in the tea ceremony and Haikai poetry)—thus providing Westerners with a key to understanding Japanese paintings. Yumeji argued that the aesthetics behind each are not only common to that of Japanese paintings, which seeks the most appropriate or refined line, but also express a value permeating Japanese traditional culture.
Now I wish briefly to mention the activities of Itten’s students who brought his art pedagogy to Japan—in particular Eva Plaut (one of Yumeji’s students at the Itten-Schule), and her friends, in particular the Jiyu Gakuen students Mitsuko Yamamuro and Kazuko Imai (Sasagawa). According to Shinji Fujibayashi, a movie director who conducted research on Yumeji, Plaut, who later taught at the Sorbonne, said the following regarding the effect meeting Yumeji had on her: “I was influenced by his method of practical training, which did not exist in Western art practice, and (his influence led me to) choose my career as art educator.” I contacted Plaut in 2003, confirming that she lived in Japan from 1935 to 1937 and during this time held seminars on Itten’s art education method in Tokyo. These were attended by six to eight young Japanese students.21 One of the attendees, the graphic designer Hiroshi Ohchi, is known to be one of two translators who worked on rendering Itten’s Kunst der Farbe (The Art of Color) into Japanese.22
The following details, part of my 1995 treatise, are based on interviews with Mitsuko Yamamuro and Kazuko Imai (Sasagawa) from 1993, as well as my research on historical materials and works from the 1930s. These include: the schedule of Yamamuro and Imai’s studies in Europe; why they decided to study at the Itten-Schule and Schule Reimann instead of the Bauhaus; the specific contents of Itten’s classes; their class works at the Itten-Schule; how it was that Jiyu Gakuen and Jiyu Gakuen Arts and Crafts Institute (Laboratory) evinced the influence of Bauhaus and Itten’s pedagogy; their contribution to the reception of Itten’s education in Japan; and so on.23 For example, I discovered that Yamamuro and Imai transmitted Itten’s education in detail to Renshichiro Kawakita, who played such an important role in the reception of the Bauhaus in Japan, thus shedding additional light on how Itten’s pedagogy was disseminated there. For example, Kousei Kyouiku Taikei (published in 1934 by Renshichiro Kawakita and Katsuo Takei) is thought to have been influenced by Bauhaus education. In prior research I established that the book contained work made by Yamamuro at the Itten-Schule, as well as photographic plates belonging to Yamamuro and Imai.24 Further, I pointed out that Kousei Kyouiku Taikei also contained illustrations relating directly to Itten’s pedagogy—originally published together with an article by Itten in the Deutscher Werkbund’s magazine, Die Form—as well as illustrations taken from Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar 1919-1923 (published in 1923) and from various editions of the Bauhaus-Bücher (Bauhaus-Books).25
In this manner, at about the same time that Itten was meeting Japanese painters, Japan was absorbing Itten and Bauhaus pedagogy through books, magazines and returning Japanese students who had studied aboard.
As mentioned above, in the discussion on Mizukoshi, I learned through my research on historical documents and interviews with Yamamuro and Imai (Sasagawa) that in 1932, when they were attending the Itten-Schule, Itten would hold a 30-minute physical exercise class in the morning, followed by an ink painting practice session of equal duration.26 Yamamuro and Imai averred that the Asian brush, sumi-ink and long Japanese paper rolls were used for ink painting practice at the Itten-Schule, and Itten would instruct them to flex their bodies and, having achieved a state of relaxation, paint freely. Also, they were taught the importance of researching the Nanga in order to nourish their emotions.27 Yamamuro and Imai did not take Yumeji Takehisa’s classes but stated that the Japanese ink painting classes were a novel experience for the students at Itten-Schule.
Among Yamamuro and Imai’s friends at the Itten-Schule, there were other students who took Yumeji’s class besides Plaut. Ruth Kayser was one such student. In a letter to Yamamuro and Imai dated 14 July 1933, Kayser wrote she had recently taken two months of classes with a Japanese teacher, that it had been a wonderful experience and she has learned a great deal. Based on the date of the letter, it was apparent that Kayser was enrolled in Yumeji’s ink painting class and had found it very enlightening.28
4. The Japanese ink painting approach Itten learned from Shounan Mizukoshi and Yumeji Takehisa
As mentioned above, Johannes Itten learned Japanese ink painting directly from Shounan Mizukoshi and Yumeji Takehisa. Why did Itten invite these two Japanese painters to hold ink painting classes at the Itten-Schule? As mentioned previously, a result of the Japanese painting exhibition in Berlin was a growing understanding and appreciation of Japanese art in the city. The Japanese painting exhibition allowed Japanese painters to stay in Berlin, providing them a unique opportunity to meet Itten through Alexander Nagai. This fortuitous meeting resulted in a long-term engagement for the two artists, for both Mizukoshi and Yumeji remained at the Itten-Schule teaching Japanese ink painting for several months.
As mentioned above, according to Kuniyoshi Obara, Itten zealously studied Nanga, seeing it as the way out of the impasse he sensed in Western painting. What value did Itten see in Japanese ink painting?
According to Yamamuro and Imai (Sasagawa), Itten talked about the importance of studying Nanga in order to nourish the emotions. They said that ink painting—with its practice of using appropriate (refined) lines to express what has been absorbed in one’s heart as opposed to faithfully depicting what one sees—was very novel and interesting to the students at Itten-Schule, who enthusiastically embraced it.29 From this one can surmise the ideas and worldview expressed within Japanese ink painting were novel and exciting for Western students.
At that time there were movements towards various forms of new art in Europe and, especially in Germany, Expressionism was gaining recognition. Rather than depicting the object as it appears to the eye, Expressionism sought to exteriorize internal emotional states. It is worth noting that both Mizukoshi and Yumeji each tried to instruct students on how to grasp the object in Japanese ink painting. Mizukoshi taught from the root and stressed the importance of capturing with the spirit the symbolism and essence of the painted object. Yumeji also taught the importance of tracing the origin of an object and internally apprehending the painted object using the soul’s eye. It can be said that they taught to look at the painted object from a fundamental point of view, grasping it with the heart. When teaching Asian ink painting to Westerners, one might think the focus would be on stroke and techniques, such as shading and blurring. While Mizukoshi and Yumeji obviously taught these techniques, I believe that rather than teaching its superficial characteristics they were trying to convey the true essence of Japanese ink painting, its views and ideas.
As mentioned above, Johannes Itten learned Japanese ink painting from Shounan Mizukoshi in 1931, and in 1932 he began to conduct classes on the practice of ink brush painting in earnest at the Itten-Schule, following a physical exercise session called “morning practice” where he would teach breathing control, concentration and relaxation of the body and soul.30 In 1933, Yumeji Takehisa taught Japanese ink painting at the Itten-Schule and wrote the two previously mentioned textbooks. Itten kept Yumeji’s 1933 textbooks in his possession, and in an article from 1942 entitled “Ostasiatische Tuschmalerei” (East Asian Ink Painting), he quoted a section of Yumeji’s textbook which describes the characteristics of lines and the various expressivity of lines that could be achieved through the use of the brush.31 Subsequently, in his book Mein Vorkurs am Bauhaus. Gestaltungs- und Formenlehre (Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus), Itten pointed out that the brush is an excellent means of expression which adds rich nuances and opens up the possibility of variation:32 the myriad possibilities of expression Yumeji taught using ink and brush certainly resonated with Itten.
While at the house of Anneliese Itten in 1994, I read a diary entry of Itten’s dated 1 June 1942. Under the title “Introduction on the essence of Chinese and Japanese brush painting,” he had written: “To reach internal free time is the deepest reason (motive), as well as a secret aim of Zen painting and Zen monks.”33 In the 1950s, Itten furthered his study into Zen thought and ink painting.34 In his book Kunst der Farbe (The Art of Color), Itten noted that among prominent ink painters there are many Zen monks, also mentioning ink painting’s connection with meditation.35
Itten’s interest in Asian philosophy and art, which first developed while he was in Vienna, was at its high point during the period when he invited Japanese painters to teach at the Itten-Schule. His perception of ink painting developed over time from an intellectual curiosity to a practical, experiential understanding. Through his encounters with Japanese painters, Itten recognized the educational value of ink drawing and incorporated his new knowledge into his pedagogical methods, which led to his later studies of ink painting and Zen thought. In his later years, this had a major impact on his work.