Shadows / by Jeannine Cook

I recently reread the quote, "There is no beauty without shadows", from Junichiro Tanizaki's 1933 slender book, In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki was, in part, contrasting the Western and Japanese concepts of beauty, amongst other subjects. Shadows for him represented the obliqueness of nature-based arts, weathered naturalness, the play of light on moss, a single candle light bringing alive black lacquer flecked with gold or silver - in other words, the subtle, understated traditional versions of beauty so esteemed in former times in Japan.

His celebration of transient beauty found in shadows made me remember all the Japanese woodcuts with which I grew up. My grandparents lost everything in the 1923 earthquake and fire in Yokohama, Japan. My grandfather stayed on for two years afterwards to help in the city's reconstruction. In order to help the devastated Japanese artist community, he and other Western businessmen clubbed together to commission a series of woodcut prints, based on traditional Ukiyo-E (pictures of the floating world), from a group of artists. A set of prints came to East Africa with my grandfather and graced the wall of the home in which I lived in Tanzania. In these woodcuts, the shadows are subtle, elusive and allusive. From this art, I learned that shadows are really far more revealing than light.

As an artist myself, I love the abstract underpinnings of a drawing or painting created by the play of shadows. It is like magic: you try to capture the fleeting shadows on a flower, a tree, a landscape, and suddenly, from this seemingly inchoate medley of darks, you have a comprehensible image. The gradations of shadow are also endlessly revealing, describing the object in space. Within those shadows too, are so many colours, local, reflected, warm, cool - you can look and look and always learn more. Next time you are glorying in a sunny day, look at the shadows and marvel. Tanizaki was right to say, "There is no beauty without shadows."