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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.4 (2003) 93-101

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Japanese Painting and Johannes Itten's Art Education


Johannes Itten (1888-1967), the first director of the Preliminary Course at the Bauhaus (1919-1933), is said to have been influenced by Asian thought. He placed the concept of "contrast" at the center of his education. After retiring from the Bauhaus, Itten founded his own private art school in Berlin, Ittenschule (1926-1934). The details of the Ittenschule were not very well known. However, careful examination reveals some contacts between this German school and Japan. Itten studied Sumi-e (paintings using Asian brush techniques and sumi-ink). In 1931, ShounanMizukoshi gave lectures on Nanga (a kind of Sumi-e) to Itten and his studentsat the Ittenschule. The following year, two Japanese students from Jiyugauen-school, Mitsuko Yamamuro (1911-1999) and Kazuko Imai Sasagawa (1910-2001) studied at the school. Then, in 1933 Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934) was asked to give lectures on Sumi-e there. In this essay, based on the details of this educational relationship, I consider the influence of Japanese painters on Itten's Art Education and how Itten's Art Education was introduced into Japan.

Shounan Mizukoshi's Classes at the Ittenschule

In 1931, a large-scale exhibition of Japanese paintings (Ausstellung von Werken lebender japanischer Maler) was held in Berlin. Some Japanese were sent there for the Exhibition. Among them were painters Suiun Komuro and Kouho Hiroshima. Shounan Mizukoshi (1888-1985), a Nanga painter, accompanied Komuro and stayed in Berlin. A special edition of a Japanese newspaper featuring the three and a picture postcard of a Mizukoshi painting were pasted onto Itten's private diary (1930/1931). 1 A Japanese educator named Kuniyoshi Obara (1887-1977) observed a class by Mizukoshi teaching Nanga to Itten and his students of the Ittenschule. Obara founded Tamagawagakuen-school in Japan, emphasizing the necessity of education to create men with a balanced personality (whole-person education). He was in Europe at that [End Page 93] time to inspect education there and to give lectures, and he also stayed in Berlin. I discovered Obara's report on Mizukoshi's lesson after his return to Japan in a publication of Tamagawagakuen-school. From his description, it became clear that Mizukoshi gave special lectures on Nanga for six months and the class content also came to light. 2 Obara's report is as follows:

Itten is a first-class German artist and a leader in German art education. When I met him, he said that Western art has come to an impasse and he is studying Nanga from Japan very seriously. I think Matisse's paintings are very close to Oriental paintings. Shounan Mizukoshi is teaching Itten Japanese painting in a very scientific and anatomical manner. For example, when he teaches us how to paint lilies, he talks about starting from the lily roots. Itten was very impressed with this point. According to Mr. Mizukoshi, the stem of a lily is not just a straight line, but a gradual extension from the root. The very tip of a lily stem is curved and the flower faces downward. This is an expression of modesty. The lily flower is white which symbolizes purity. The strong scent and nobility as a whole symbolize strength in frailness. The purity, nobility, and modesty symbolize the virtues of the Japanese woman, according to Mizukoshi. Unless one understands "the very life of a lily is in its modesty," he insists that one could not possibly paint lilies. Mr. Mizukoshi's mental or spiritual attitude reflects religious teaching, unique in Nanga and that is what he teaches. 3

The above passage conveys how earnestly Itten studied Nanga in 1931. Also, through the passage, we can understand that, in order to capture the essence of the object material, Mizukoshi made an observation of the root in the case of a flower and analyzed it as a natural scientist would. At the same time, he tried to convey the intrinsic symbolic meaning of the flower. In the above case, the flower symbolizes...


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