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by Beate Conrad



   Haiga or haikai drawing refers to a specific style of Japanese painting, which has also become popular in Western culture as a haiku-related form. Even early in Chinese traditional art, from which the Japanese art form has derived, poetry and other inscriptions were accompanied by images. We meet them with texts penned both by the artist himself and by other authors. From the 6th century onwards, based on the academic way of painting in court circles, gradually some common literary style developed blending poetic taste in painting, thus unifying the three arts of painting, calligraphy, and poetry. Thereby each art form, its appreciation and criticism is essentially built on the same transformed aesthetic standards, which are rooted in the philosophy of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism (of the 7th century, in Japan called Zen). Later the style was refined by the Chinese Wen Jen School also relying on profound observations (of nature). This aesthetics refers to the awareness and sensory perception in space and time, basis of every human cognition focussing on the general recognition of beauty's perceptiveness, its regularities respectively the proportions of objects and their relationship as such, and harmony in nature and art.

   During the Edo period, the literary-flavored painting style was adopted and cultivated by the Japanese using the term nanga and bunjinga, meaning southern or literati painting. Among others, especially Yosa Buson, Japan's greatest painter of that period and also an important poet, developed the literati sensibility of haiga within the literary style using the same aesthetics, from which haiku poetry derives. These are aesthetic principles, which also feature mindful insight into the relationship between the essential elements in a composition.

   The Japanese haiga unifies the haiku, a poem, traditionally painted with a brush in ink, i. e. the calligraphy, with a simple image painted in ink on the same sheet of paper.  As a visual work of art the haiga is related in its form, style, and theme to the haiku. Etymologically hai means humor, fun, joy, life, the well-recognized and the well-shaped. In addition it indicates that something is right or correct in terms of general experience; ga means drawing or painting. Haiku expresses plain insight transformed into language. The haiga juxtaposes the insight expressed in writing, which is also graphically expressed, with a visual experience, the painting. This well-formed drawing does not illustrate or explain the text, but adds a new complementing aspect to the art of calligraphy, thus enabling poem and image to complete and balance each other as a new artistic entity, the haiga.


1.Sha-hai — Photo-Haiku and the Haiga Art Form

   The traditional haiga developed under the influence of different approaches by artists according to their training, talents, and also according to their main focus on literary arts or within the visual arts.  With the growing popularity of different media and techniques, today haiga is not only painted (with ink) but created in a large variety of media.1 Photography and digital graphics offer new possibilities to experiment with this art form, even on a multimedia level.

   However, photography plays a special role anyway as a Western invention. Thus the concept of “photo-haiga”2 was imported by the Japanese calling it sha-hai. Sha comes from shashin and stands for photo, hai stands for haiku.3 The characteristics of a photo-haiku compared to haiga are quite different.  Mainly the photograph provides a documentation and renders its object in perspective view. A painting uses abtraction of forms, at least to some degree, and the concept of empty space. A photograph does neither. It merely holds highly detailed information and is complete in itself making it difficult to add text; therefore finding the balance between text and picture is rather difficult. That usually leads to very small printed overlay, caption, or wider frames. However, such frames are only effective if they amplify the subject matter itself. For each element has to have a specific, non-decorative function in the composition; otherwise it will distract from the essentials of composition.

   Moreover, photography separates the means of presenting text and image, traditionally integral parts of the same media and technique (brushwork) as well as the same painting style. In photo-haiku the calligraphy is often reduced to letters (typography), neglecting the artistic aspect of the text. Whereas the spontaneous expression4 of the irreversible (brush-) stroke, that is reflected in a vital rhythmic flow of the lines (in one breath), harmonizes the entire composition of a painting as a whole, the photo-haiku divides this process and gives way to several less spontaneous steps at different times. With pictorialism5 (in the end of the 19th century) the new medium of photography rose from a mechanical process to an art form. It produced its own views by rendering specific painting-like scenes. As for photo-haiku, it may not reach the vivid expression of a genuine haiku-painting (haiga), but it may hold new associative ways of incorporating the haikai-spirit, where the artist's view beyond the actual image and text also resonates in the observer, where it blends and transforms into his own reality before his inner eye.


2. Photo-Haiku Special


Photo and Haiku by Romano Zeraschi, artwork by Ombretta Corradi


   This photo-haiku creates a world of both illusions and reality. Beside a simple visual reflection, the image opens a wide range of experiences on different levels of consciousness and awareness like that of dreams and reality, and that of fiction and reality: in literature and mythology for instance as the Arthurian legend, the Wielandian “Castle in the Air”, or the “Flying Dutchman”.  It evokes a variety of landscapes (sea, shore, land), where such optical phenomena occur. The photo shows a natural landscape, a shore or a desert, which together with the “laugh” may remind us of Longfellow's “Sweet Illusions of Song”. At the same time it reveals the real landscapes of the Straits of Messina and Sicily, thought of as an alternative place for Avalon.

   This is due to the choice of words imbued with powerful connotations, dynamically enhancing text and image in context allowing the onlooker's experience to progress. Accordingly, the echoing laughter expresses underlying emotions and humor as well as the irony of some serious deception. This rich imagery is also achieved by linked repetition of graphical and text elements including its sound qualities.

   Etymologically mirage means to look at, to wonder at. Its root comes from mirror and to admire. A mirage is a real optical phenomenon that produces false images at the observers location. What these images definitely represent is determined by the human's mind in context of his situation. This essence of natural and human experience is well-reflected and works on many levels in this photo-haiku. As a matter of fact, Zeraschi's example offers an opportunity to take a closer look at this “looking and wondering” as a structural element of artistic and poetic image composition.


a. Imagery Versus Interpretation

   The sculpture integrated into the image — showing as art within art another interesting approach to photo-haiku —depicting a Bedouin or a knight on a camel, on horseback, or on a donkey strengthens the first impression of a desert landscape, where water and rocks now turn from a mirage into a Fata Morgana (even the sculpture might be an illusion of a veiled Morgana or that of a knight like Arthur), and the viewer may identify with it, going on his own dreamlike ride through the desert, even exclaiming: “It is gone, and I wonder and wait / For the vision to reappear” as Longfellow's poem suggests.

   Considering the strong images of this well-wrought haiku, leaning on adequate and even symbolic images of nature itself, it is quite a decision for a haiga-creator on how much his painting or photograph might reveal.

   To be very clear: What I am going to show does not mean that the above photo-haiku needs any amendment or “workshopping”. The point is rather to raise additional awareness and understanding of the creative process and its effects on the observer's perception according to haikai principles. As for Japanese aesthetics, the haiga leaves as much space as possible to the observer, hence to his imagination. In other words, it is important what the viewer possibly imagines, what he contemplates to be represented in the objects, when his eyes wander along the compositional “action”-lines from the haiku to the other points of interest.

   As a first step, the sculpture is removed from the busy horizontal line in order to concentrate on the natural landscape in its full depth. Now the eyes of the observer wander from the bigger rock — as biggest object the “host“ of the composition — up to the small-typed letters in the upper left corner across the wavy haiku-lines into the sky, then to the smaller rock, across the left reflection of the rock in the water.  Then the eyes move further down and stop in front оf  the  creators  inscription where we

From the Original: Romano Zeraschi, Photo and Haiku; Ombretta Corradi, Sculpture


traditionally would expect the artist's seal to balance out the composition. From there the eyes go up again to the wavy haiku-lines and turn back to the the big rock-triangle. Thereafter its reflection starts a new viewing cycle “from mirage to mirage”. With every new eye movement along theses “action”-lines, the onlooker gets an additional sense of fore- and background, of space and distance, of the misty mountain ridge in the back, the waterline in the fore and the haiku. Thus the onlooker connects his discoveries with his associations and meanings of the text, constantly changing his experience.


b. Empty Space and Asymmetry

   In a traditional haiga the medium, in which all objects exist, is omitted or rather alluded to by a part of the object line itself. As for a photograph, it is basically impossible to incorporate the concept of empty space in such a way. But the composition may be opened a bit further by removing the very small-typed haiku, since we already dispose of this dynamic text-wave that indicates all kind of movement and contrasts the rock-solid objects. Just this small reduction will give the sky space and allow the  blue  of  water and sky to  merge  within and beyond the image borders, thus creating a


From the Original: Romano Zeraschi, Photo and Haiku; Ombretta Corradi, Sculpture


similar atmosphere as the concept of empty space does, or at least a less defined one. This amount of “less information” draws the viewer's attention even closer and sparks his imagination to fill the void.  Even the loose typography of the haiku that vanishes into thin air by fading or breaking off with “mir... [age]” at the end of the second line will surely support this lightness. Hence, this little “imperfection” is actually a rhetoric tool for emphasis, and it challenges the viewer's imagination to complete it himself. This, too, adds to a multifaceted depth beyond the visible.

   Another structural element that keeps these viewing cycles of “looking and wandering” going is the asymmetric object placement in an overall balanced composition. The concept of asymmetric composition works like a mathematical equation: as in 8=5+2+1, and rather not as 8=8, which is its symmetrical counterpart. This artistic technique leads to a vivid tension between the image and the text for further exploration by the observer. Here, for example, it keeps the right side of the image with the most important “host” rock in balance with its other, less weighing “guests” on its left; and it balances the “empty” blue space in the upper left in opposite to the filled space in the middle and lower right.

   Combining imagery of formerly disparate elements in such a way creates a meaningful relationship between a painting/photograph and a poem. In turn, the deep poetical and inspiring views of the most natural and simple especially keeps the entire structural composition in place and defines the “literary style” of haiga as  art.


c. Wandering  The Text-Image Experience

Art per se transforms reality into viewer's reality. But the difference between this general impact of the arts and the literary flavored art form called haiga lies in the artistic concept of suggestions provided, which enable the process of “looking and wandering”. Accordingly text and image do not merely render, but depict more than the naked eye can see. This floating process between discovery and incompleteness achieved through highly condensed, thus simplified imagery of both text and painting/photo leads to a deeper level, where sight naturally completes to insight solely in the individual's mind. That is where a new entity of art emerges. Exactly this poetic and energetic atmosphere of wandering is the unifying aesthetic essence of the haikai-style.



Addiss, Stephen: Haiga: Takebe Sōchō and the Haiku-Painting Tradition. Richmond, Virginia: University of Richmond, 1995.
Addiss, Stephen: 77 Dances: Japanese Calligraphy by Poets, Monks and Scholars, 1568-1868, Weatherhill, 2006.
Addiss, Stephen / Yoshiko, Audrey: How to Look at Japanese Art. New York, 1996.
Brüll, Lydia: Über das Zusammenspiel von Leere und Schweigen im integrativen Text-Bild, Sommergrass Nr.89,  Deutsche Haiku Gesellschaft, 2010, pp.11-17
Codrescu, Ion: Haïga —Peindre en poésie, Éditions A.F.H., 2012.
Codrescu, Ion: The Spirit of Haiga, An Interview by Jeanne Emrich, Reeds Contemporary Haiga, Haiga, Vol. 4, 2006.
Crowley, Cheryl A.: Haikai poet Yosa Buson and the Bashô Revival, Leiden, 2007, pp. 165-243.
Grewe, Gabi: Shahai and Haiga, Haiku and Happiness Blogspot, 2005.
Kacian, Jim: Looking and Seeing: How Haiga Works, Red Moon Press, 2004, pp. 126-153.
Leonard, Koren: Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, Stone Bridge Press, Berkley, 1994.
Seckel, Dietrich: Einführung in die Kunst Ostasiens, München 1960, pp. 139-154.
Yuuko Suzuki: Japanese Calligraphy, Search Press, 2005.


First published: Chrysanthemum, No.11, 2012, pp. 37-44, online:www.chrysanthemum-haiku.net


  1. Haiga, strictly defined, are paintings, but many of the picture-text combinations included in Buson's printed works operate according to the same logic used in haiga, showing further evidence of the close relationship between text and image in haikai.
  2. Therefore, “photo-haiga” would translate into photohaiku-drawing, whereas photo-haiku expresses the correct connotation.
  3. In Francophone countries people were unfortunately rather rash to name the new genre haisha just following the examples of haiku and haibun, a designation fairly peculiar to Japanese ears as it means "dentist" in their language.
  4. Painting in one breath also reflects the painter's soul and his emotional state of mind at the time his painting is being created.
  5. The pictorialistic photographer controlled the entire process and manipulated (retouched) the negatives. For quite a few the negative was only a sketch, which would become art during a complicated and elaborated chemical process and using special printing, which supposed to enhance the painterly effect. But exactly this striving for perfection led to its gravest criticism: imitation of another art.