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Edging Toward Japan: The strong influence of the mirrors of Western art

Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait" (Public Domain)

By Damian Flanagan

    Earlier last year, an exhibition at London's National Gallery explored the impact of the famous 15th century Flemish painting "The Arnolfini Portrait" by Jan Van Eyck on Britain's Victorian painters such as John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

    The "Arnolfini Portrait" depicts an Italian merchant and his wife. To their left, light enters through a window onto a table with oranges; to their right is a 4 poster bed; on the floor is a small dog and some sandals. At the centre of the painting is a convex mirror through which is reflected the reverse view of the figures and the scene which they are looking at -- two people entering through a doorway.

    In 1842 the "Arnolfini Portrait" was acquired by the National Gallery and put on display and caused a sensation. Britain's "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" of painters, formed in 1848, thought that Western art had lost its vitality in the centuries following the great Renaissance painter Raphael and looked to earlier art works -- like Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait" -- for inspiration.

    In numerous Pre-Raphaelite works, the influence of Van Eyck is palpable and a reflecting mirror placed at the heart of the painting. Britain's Victorian painters indeed became fascinated with the idea of art itself as a "mirror," which also shapes and comments on the world.

    Natsume Soseki

    In 1900 Natsume Soseki arrived in London for two years and, with an avid interest in visual art, began closely observing Pre-Raphaelite pictures and absorbing their influence. In his 1906 novel "Kusamakura," Millais' famous painting of "Ophelia" is discussed, and in his short story "Kairoko," he depicts the Lady of Shalot and her magical mirror.

    Yet in many places in Soseki's early works, art-inspired "mirrors" play a crucial role. In "Kusamakura," a painter has escaped to a mountain onsen in which is located a place called the "Mirror Pond" (Kagamigaike). He eventually settles on not painting the exterior world directly but the reflections he observes in the Mirror Pond.

    Sanshiro Pond is seen at the University of Tokyo in the capital's Bunkyo Ward.

    In "Sanshiro," the heroine Mineko has her portrait painted during the course of the novel and there is also a mirror-like pond located at the heart of this novel -- the so-called Sanshiro Pond at Tokyo University. It's interesting to think of this pond as a Van Eyck mirror at the centre of a portrait of modern Tokyo.

    But Soseki was not the only Japanese novelist to demonstrate the strong influence of the mirrors of Western art, dating all the way back to Van Eyck. The beginning of Yasunari Kawabata's famous novel "Snow Country" opens with a tour-de-force scene on a railway carriage in which the protagonist is suddenly shocked to discover weird body parts -- a woman's eye, a part of a man's head -- reflected on the train window as it turns dark outside and the window is suddenly transformed onto a mirror, bringing incongruous and strangely beautiful shapes from other parts of the train before his eyes.

    Yasunari Kawabata is seen at his home in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, in this Oct. 17, 1968 file photo. (Photo taken by Takashi Yonezu, former Mainichi Shimbun photographer)

    This is Kawabata's modernist riposte to Soseki. Influenced by cubism and other movements of modern art, the "mirror" no longer reflects Victorian visions of loveliness, but a strangely surreal and haunting sense of beauty.


    (This is Part 2 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


    Damian Flanagan

    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. One of the books he authored was "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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