Haiga Fundamentals II PDF Print E-mail

by Beate Conrad


   Among all components of visual arts, such as the ones in painting and calligraphy, composition is the most fundamental. For composition organizes all elements into a cohesive design. The art of composition encompasses several essential principles. One of them is perspective or depth. The term perspective comes from the Latin word “perspicere”, which means to see through. It is used in the graphic arts to represent an image on a flat surface which shows approximately the three-dimensional shape of objects and its relationship to its environment as seen by the eye. This relationship is, however, not only a relationship between objects or between objects and its environment, but also a relationship that defines and influences the way of seeing.

   The European approach to this space concept is the one-point or linear perspective, which has been (re-)invented during the Renaissance in close context with the “camera obscura.” In his treatise “Geometric Projections” of 1525, the German painter and mathematician Albrecht Dürer was the first to describe the linear geometric constructions. The Renaissance perspective sees the world like a camera: With a single eye in a fixed position. As objects become more distant they appear smaller, because their visual angle decreases according to Euclid's Geometry. For perspective can be seen in the way the parallel lines seem to meet and vanish at a distant point which levels with the viewer's eye. In the Western world, this kind of perspective with this stationary central viewpoint is widely accepted as realistic. As such it defines our visual expectations of what and how we see and understand. Of course nowadays, with photography, with digital graphics and digital manipulation, — as computer generated three-dimensional graphics prove —geometrical projection of perspective developed further and has clearly left its mark on contemporary haiga art.

   In China, however, even thousand years earlier than in the West, the painter Tsung Ping had discovered another way, the realistic approach, of including perspective in painting: by looking at the scenery through a piece of silk.  He proposed to depict the near as detailed and only suggest the distant.

  As for East Asian art, particularly Chinese landscape paintings, from which the literati painting style has originated, perspective is not really needed. Its impression is achieved by exemplified suggestions of the objects themselves. Dynamic lines indicate movement and therefore the space where movement takes place. Since the effect of depth is indicated by symbolic lines with dark and light contrast and by its density or looseness, the element of perspective exists only in the mind's eye as an imagined space.  Thus the Chinese poet, musician, painter, and statesman Wang Wei emphasized that the painting meant to convey the poetic quality of a scene as it was spiritually perceived. It is not the rich and detailed panorama then, but a rather suprarealistic view — similar toa bird's eye view — that will allow the artist to depict the very essence of nature, a contemplated inner vision. Therefore, he must be liberated from the bondage of the perspective which limits his spiritual scope and minimizes the energetic atmosphere, both of which are equally essential for the viewer's inner text-image experience.

  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. Matsuo Bashô and especially Yosua Buson developed the literati sensibility of haiga within the literary style using the same aesthetics from which also haiku poetry derives. They, too, incorporated into the haikai painting the new way of seeing: the subject matter of scenes from nature and daily life, the asymmetrical composition, and an idealistic perspective, a space consciousness, as it is realized by the empty space concept. Many of those haiku paintings often appear rather flat, little or not shaded at all, and with hardly any sense of volume.

  Haiga art is a suprarealistic approach that reveals multiple perspectives, including simultaneous views of different parts of the scene from different positions, and it also includes the reverse perspective. For the experience of consecutive change in image and meaning is one of the most characteristic traits of haiku and haiga.

   The following example will show how the perspective as a structural element interacts with the viewer's imagination.


Perspective santokaThe Imagined Space




“I Walk“- Haiku by Santôka Taneda, Artwork by Kuniharu Shimizu


Perspective The Imagined Space

   On this haiga, we notice the letters in color and that there is no seal, but otherwise we are looking at a haiga in traditional Japanese style, one with just little, subdued color and with simple, yet dynamic sumi-e brushstrokes. As a matter of fact, we are looking at a powerful asymmetric composition instead of a centralized focus of interest. Nevertheless, the image even appears flat with little perspective at all. Only some lines are drawn on top of another, which indicates some simple kind of depth. The two warm and cool hues of green support this notion.

   Then the image, upon a closer view, shows us an insect sitting on this almost triangular and rather abstract ink line. But it is exactly this vagueness that sparks our imagination to ask what natural or man-made material this insect may sit on.

   Then the light-green Japanese letters, their vertical line pulls the observer's attention away from the major object and zooms downwards to the horizontal haiku lines in English. This eye movement gives us another basic sense of space with a viewpoint from the fore of the image, and that brings this text closer to our attention. Its first line reads: „I walk“. But who is I? Is it the personalized insect walking on a twig or on a bending blade of grass? Is it us, the observers, taking an imaginary walk?

   Looking more closely, we recognize that the haiku as a graphic element completes the ink line to a full triangle. And it becomes something larger than our former image of a twig or blade of grass. In addition, the two darker ends of the ink line can be seen as two almost parallel diagonals.These diagonals seem to converge and vanish into an imaginary point somewhere far outside the image at the lower left-hand corner. This type of v-shaped linear perspective places the viewer's position further away from the scene. Actually, it widens the sense of space and transforms the image: Now, we have a triangular-shaped empty space, a white mountain, and in addition a tree suggested by the vertical Japanese line, and also some green in the left front suggested by the horizontal haiku lines. Now, the observer's eyes wander about a large scale landscape, indeed. The English haiku poses as lower vegetation in the fore, the Japanese vertical letter-line, the "tree," reaches into the heights and into the back, suggesting volume, and the "mountain" is the main object in the middle of the landscape. The entire image has changed into a traditional landscape composed by our imagination. And there, in our imagination, may even appear some specific locations.

   That's when we notice that the insect, a dragonfly, seems a bit large in our otherwise well-scaled  imaginary landscape in linear perspective. And we turn back to the haiku, reading the second line: "letting perched on my kasa." This information changes our mountain into a Japanese straw hat, and the new image becomes a partial of a picture that reaches beyond the borders of the actual depicted.

So we are looking at a hat of another person walking right in front of us, we are about to encounter the literary narrator, the "I". In Japanese culture, a kasa is not a simple straw hat, but one made of different materials, such as sedge, rice-straw, bamboo, pine bark. It is shaped like a mountain and it is large. (For now, this may also put the size of the insect back into perspective.) The main purpose of a kasa is to protect the traveler from the rains, especially from the spring rains. There are different types of kasa for warriors, for monks and priests, and for ordinary people as well. Thus, it may even imply the time and purpose of the journey. In the Edo period, the pilgrim's kasa had often special inscriptions. Since wandering was also a poet's tradition, we may even find a slight hint that the author Santôka is in the poem.

   Still the dragonfly seems rather large in size and therefore draws our attention closer again. This time, the lines of perspective diverge from the front into the dragonfly and vanish in the back of the image. This reverse perspective — as we encounter it for instance in East Asian art, in Byzantine and Russian Orthodox iconography, and in modern cubism — only creates the illusion that the vanishing point is in front of the image. Actually, we get the impression as if the dragonfly looks down on the bearer of the hat — and probably on his state of mind. This is a means to emphasize meaning, for instance, it implies an entity beyond man's control. And indeed, the dragonfly is an extraordinary symbol: Japan was once called Akitsushima meaning "The Island of the Dragonfly". So this animal has been part of the culture for a long time and is held very dear. Considering the walk and the way ahead, it symbolizes luck and persistence because dragonflies never go back. For a religious purpose like the pilgrimage, in high mountains the dragonfly may be also appreciated. The dragonfly was once known as katsumushi, i.e. the invincible insect. Imagine this symbol on a worrier's kasa. As such it symbolizes immortality, strength and regeneration, but also irresponsibility, unreliability, and transience.

   In former times, most mountains were thought of as sacred and ordinary people were not allowed to climb them. But in this haiga, the mountain is depicted as a place that may let humankind walk and perch like a dragonfly for a little while on their journey through life. In the end, the mountain with its dragonfly may lead toward eternity.

   Combining imagery of formerly disparate elements in such a way creates a meaningful relationship between the painting and the poem. These changes in perspectives, from large to small scale, from high above to low, and from close-up to distance, causes the viewer to contemplate the relationship between men and nature from several angles. And this contemplation, the suprarealistic view, is the result of the observer's inner imaginary experience which was sparked and enhanced by the few, but most effective means of suggestion with simple dynamic lines and empty space rather than by factually applied perspectives.



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Image Source:

Kunihari Shimizu: “I Walk”, 2011, See Haiku Here, Blogspot: http://seehaikuhere.blogspot.com


First published: Chrysanthemum, No.12, 2012, pp. 49-54.


Beate Conrad

Beate Conrad is of German origin and makes her home in Michigan, USA, and in a small town in Northern Germany. Her haiku and haiga have been awarded and appeared in a variety of print and online journals. She creates haiku-related works combining visual arts and music. She is editor of the International Haiku Magazine Chrysanthemum.