The Beauty of Transience
Recently I discovered two new words. They are not in the English language. They are: Wabi-Sabi, and they intrigued me no end. So I thought that I would share these two deep and meaningful words, and the thinking behind them.
Wabi-Sabi is a very ancient Philosophy. It originated with Buddha and early Eastern way of life, but has, since the fourteenth century become totally Japanese. The significance of the words was first of all a bit more on the solemnity and mortality of humans and objects, referring to loneliness, remoteness and living a ‘lean’ sort of life away from society. Now, to my mind, it has taken a rather more uplifting, enriching and inspirational connotation.
But let me first of all try to simplify these two words. For Wabi you can read; Rustic simplicity, quietness, and understated elegance. The quirks in our life or that of an inanimate object that makes us or it so unique, especially with the passing of time. And Sabi, you can say, is the beauty and serenity that comes with age. The impermanence of life on objects; rust, wrinkles, the ‘wear and tear’ that is seen only through the passing of time, where one knows that an object (or, indeed a person) has had a history all of its own.
From an artistic point of view, Wabi-Sabi is really found in every object created by the artisan’s hand. Whether it’s a painting or a piece of pottery or object d’art, when you look closely, nothing is really flawless. And that is why we appreciate hand-made things! You can design flawless objects using a computer these days and then send it to a factory and you can have a million Perfect objects looking exactly the same. But that doesn’t inspire anyone does it?
The Japanese invented the art of Hagi ware, where tea cups or bowls used in tea ceremonies are all different, all imperfect.
It is this ‘Flawed Beauty’ that attracts us, makes us want to own an object like that, knowing that its imperfection is what makes it unique, one of a kind. They even celebrate imperfection when a piece of ceramic is broken. In Japan they do not throw it away, but repair it, using gold! It is called Kintsugi, the art of repairing something using lacquer dusted with gold, silver or platinum. So the breakage is treated as part of its history to be celebrated rather than hidden. And I say what a brilliant concept!
After a while I started to think about the history of painting and artists (me being one of course) and a few things occurred to me. If you look, for example, at Greek art and the form they were after, it all had to be so perfect. Perfect vases with perfectly shaped humans painted on them. And the Renaissance artists continued on the same notion. The search for perfection was the number one priority for artists and their patrons. For hundreds of years, a faultless piece of art was the aim of every Western artisan. Italian and French painters fought for that illusive flawless precision in whatever they painted or created.
Then came the Impressionists. They put, albeit probably unintentionally, the art of Wabi-Sabi on the western art world. It wasn’t totally coincidental, however, as their biggest influence and inspiration came from Japanese prints that all of the Impressionists seemed to acquire. Just take a look at the paintings of Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Gauguin, to name but a few. You don’t see perfection there. Just a fleeting impression of an object or place. No golden ratio, no Divine proportion, no Fibonacci sequence.
Of course the epitome of this is the mercurial Vincent Van Gogh. He was a flawed character himself, he was a mixture of Wabi-Sabi, and Hagi ware incarnated and so was his painting. In fact I would say that through his art he was trying to Kintsugi his life and soul! The word ‘perfect’ does not fit into anything he was or ever painted, and yet he is arguably the best loved person in the history of art.
Have you ever asked yourself why? Because although we might think that we want everything in our life to be perfect, we love and connect more with imperfection, with the Wabi-Sabi around us. In fact we appreciate and value the idea of Flawed Beauty. All of us know that about ourselves (unless we are totally conceited) and so we feel a certain concord and inner peace when we connect with imperfection.
Rather than looking for perfection, accept and appreciate people and things as they are. Remember, going to the Mall is good because you will find all that you need, but isn’t it more exciting going to a car-boot sale, not knowing what you’re going to find? A sunny day can be called ‘perfect’ but a storm is more exhilarating to watch!
At the end of the day, the only logical thing for us to do is, when something is broken, whether it’s within us or a cherished person or inanimate object, is to repair it using Kintsugi, so that every time we look at it, we appreciate the Wabi-Sabi value within it and prize it even more than before.
Our whole life is ultimately transient. So make the best of it, and if somehow, somewhere, sometime, it gets ‘chipped’ a little, make that experience a part of your life, treasure it, learn from it, ‘Kintsugi’ it, and smile with the knowledge that every other being and thing in the world experiences the same thing at some point in their life. As the writer Richard R. Powell put it: ‘Nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.’
John Paris Dimech