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The manatee conversation had taken place at New York’s Japan Society, a remarkable institution, founded in 1907, which promotes and explains Japanese culture – if you are in the city, do go and see what’s happening.
As well as running a season of films shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, one of Japan’s greatest cinematographers (he shot The Spider Tattoo, Ballad of Orin, Yojimbo and Rashomon, for goodness’ sake – all of which you should watch), there was an exhibition of rare works by the artist Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610).
There were some which were lustrous, gilded landscapes of waterfalls and trees obscured by golden clouds, each with moments of abstraction and distorted reality, but the works which made the greatest impact on me were the large ink screens (byōbu), including the masterpiece Pine Trees (Shōrin-zu-byōbu), painted at the end of the 16th century, which has been designated national treasure status in Japan.
Space to think: A visitor meditates in front of a reproduction of Pine Trees in New York (Photo: Japan Society Gallery)
The greatest ink paintings have what in the West seems like a recklessly daring use of blank space, but is in fact an exquisite balance between space and forms which can be delineated by a single brushstroke, and where entire screens can be left almost blank: in one of Pine Trees’ screens there’s the mere suggestion of a mountain peak in the top corner. The trees hang in mist.
Yes, the more you look, the more you seem to discern other shapes: ghostly trees, a shrouded, retreating forest, maybe the same trees in the future. The imagination begins to fill in the space, which is the point. These are works of meditation.
They also seemed to chime with what came from that manatee talk, that first revelation of whisky – the flash of inspiration seen through the mist.
The blank space is called ‘Ma’ in Japanese. It is as much part of the landscape as what is painted, it’s more what isn’t there, or rather it is there and you are aware of it existing, even if it is not portrayed. Your gaze fills in the gaps. The effect is of a landscape in movement: the mist moves, the trees reveal themselves and then hide.
Less is more: Ghostly forms and blank space on the left-hand screen of Tōhaku’s Pine Trees
What it boils down to is a willingness to show restraint, a quality which is shared with Japanese whisky, where the notion of humbleness, modesty and lack of showiness (shibui) is a guiding principle. Less is more.
You could argue that, at times, Scotch seems too eager to please. Rather than letting things rest and be as they are, every crevice is filled, even overstuffed (here's another layer of flavour from a different wood, a different finish).
Equally, there are those whiskies which, on first acquaintance, seem to mimic the pale washes of ink perfectly. Light in colour, wispy in flavour, they might carry just a suggestion of fruit, or play up the peat. They aren’t, however, the same. In them the blank spaces aren’t part of the whole, they are simply blank.
The apparently empty spaces in these ink paintings are part of the whole, they give balance to what is painted, and balance is one leg of the three-legged stool which underpins any whisky’s quality – the other two, in case you’re interested, are complexity and character. A whisky can be bold (those golden clouds), or it can whisper like the pines, but it must always have balance.
Perfectly poised: Fine whiskies, like the right-hand screen of Tōhaku’s work, have balance
The space in the painting opens your mind to possibilities, encourages you to sit and think, and imagination is a field in which to play. It is the same, surely, with whisky. The taster, like the viewer, must have a space to meditate in, there has to be an openness so that you can fill in the gaps with your own memories and interpretations.
Not doing so is like looking at Pine Trees with a critic’s analysis being bellowed at you, telling you what it ‘means’. So with whisky. Comment is good, but it can only guide. You must trust yourself and allow your senses to get lost in the work, fill in the spaces, be they in ink, or drink.
A Giant Leap: The Transformation of Hasegawa Tōhaku is at the Japan Society Gallery in New York until Sunday, 6 May.
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