An exhibition of Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s late printmaking work shows how the pioneering abstract painter was influenced by Japanese art and literature.
The American artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright shares credit with Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Delaunay, Frantisek Kupka, and Hilna af Klint as one of the founders of abstract painting. Though his level of fame now falls well below theirs, in the early years of the 20th century he and his fellow countryman Morgan Russell—both living as expatriates in Paris—explored uncharted territory with a unique brand of color-based abstraction. Called Synchromism, it was an ambitious attempt to map color theory onto music theory, and in practice it yielded works that resemble rigorous rainbows. When Macdonald-Wright and Russell held the first Synchromist exhibition, in Munich in 1913, they became the first artists in the world to publicly show abstract work.
At the time, Macdonald-Wright, aged only 23, garnered as much attention for his arrogance and rhetorical excesses as for his art. In the spirit of the age, he and Russell printed up manifestos that defined and defended their artistic philosophy while also viciously attacking the efforts of rival artists. These bumptious, overheated attempts to promote Synchromism actually ended up damaging its reputation. In 1915 Macdonald-Wright left Paris for New York and shortly thereafter returned to Southern California, where he had grown up.
While Synchromism as a movement came to an end after just a few years, Macdonald-Wright continued to evolve as an artist. He allowed more figuration into his work (an element that had existed in some of the original Synchromist paintings), drew inspiration from the California landscape, and developed a deep interest in Asian art and culture. In 1937, on his first trip to Japan, he examined early manuscripts of haiku poetry and became an aficionado of the genre, making it a ritual to read haiku every day. This enthusiasm led him to haiga, the Japanese art of haiku illustration. Haiga are ink paintings with a similar sensibility to that of the poems, usually painted by the poets themselves, in many cases on the same piece of paper as the haiku itself.
Eventually Macdonald-Wright grew dissatisfied with the traditional haiga style and decided to try his own approach. The result was a series of 20 paintings that became the basis for a series of 20 woodblock prints using Japanese techniques that he made in 1966–67 with the technical assistance of the American-born printmaker Clifton Karhu, who lived in Kyoto. The complete set of prints is now on view at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, Calif., in an exhibition called “Stanton Macdonald Wright: The Haiga Portfolio” (through May 29). The set, one of an edition of 50, is contained in a Japanese-style box and is accompanied by sheets of text with English translations of the haikus illustrated and an explanatory text by Macdonald-Wright. Museum director Malcolm Warner says, “What prompted us to do this show is that his estate were kind enough to donate this portfolio to us just last year, and we wanted to get it on the walls as quickly as possible.”
Japanese haiga, like the poems they are based on, are very simple, even minimalist—sometimes just a few strokes of the brush to suggest the subject matter of the verses—and the use of color is usually very sparing. Macdonald-Wright’s haiga are denser and more complex, and, unsurprisingly, much more vibrantly colored. The first print in the sequence illustrates the most famous haiku of all, by Basho: “An old pond, a frog leaps in—the sound of water.” Macdonald-Wright’s illustration is a tour de force that reincarnates Synchromism with ukiyo-e techniques. The frog—or rather its leap—is rendered as a chain of interlocking shapes, mostly triangles. Warner compares this element of the print to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. As the frog strikes the pond, it generates a vertical splash and concentric circles of waves that Macdonald-Wright depicts as interlocking rings of color that create new colors are they cross and re-cross each other. With its vigorous energy, this bold print has a decidedly Futurist feel, as do several others in the series.
Some of the plates are more contemplative and Japanese-style. For example, number 9 in the series illustrates the poet Buson’s “Sunbeams slant on the riverbank and cold rain falls from a floating cloud.” Here Macdonald-Wright gives us a landscape split in two by a sun-shower, the refraction of the trees, grass, and hills through the atmosphere rendered as a sort of pixilation of the colors. Number 6, based on Basho’s “On a journey ill, my dreams wander over the withered moor,” depicts the dreams in the poem as floating puffs of color—blossoms or fireflies. “As an artist committed to abstraction,” says Warner, “Macdonald-Wright was attracted to the task of picturing abstractions, things that don’t have a physical appearance, like wind or the sound of temple bells, which are elements in these haiku.” Some of the prints, however, are strongly figurative, such as number 18, which illustrates Shiki’s “In the hand, the firefly makes a cold brilliance.” In this print, a pair of hands, drawn in ukiyo-e style, take up most of the space, while the firefly itself is not directly visible; only its light is shown. Even in the most figurative of the Haiga Portfolio prints, there is always at least one mysterious light phenomenon that takes the viewer back into the realm of abstract modernist optics.
The elderly Macdonald-Wright, still possessed of the grouchy energy of his combative younger self, wrote in the portfolio’s explanatory text, “Perhaps for the men of these early days, the haiga achieved its ambition [to complement and complete the poem], but in my opinion there are few haiga, if any, that are more than academic pictorial expositions, sometimes able, often incompetent.” He wanted to go beyond mere illustration to convey the psychological impact of a haiku, its power to bring about in the reader “a sort of ‘satori,’ namely a sudden realization inclusive both of the mind and of the body, an immediate shock-effect motivated by a subject matter that is an everyday event, even a commonplace one, but one that through poetic genius is seen as of great significance.” The modernist avant-garde of which Macdonald-Wright had been a charter member also sought a “shock-effect,” to be achieved by making viewers suddenly see the world in a new way. By way of justifying his own version of haiga as an attempt to do greater justice to the poems than the Japanese artists had, Macdonald-Wright wrote, “I have attempted to pictorialize these haiku psychologically and thus complete the verses by making the illustrations as modern as the verses will always remain.”
By John Dorfman