Specialist Scholarly Publications

Japanese Art, Aesthetics, and a European Discourse: Unraveling Sharawadgi

door: Prof. dr. ir. Wybe Kuitert
op: 4 februari 2016

At the origin of a voluminous discourse on picturesque taste in eighteenth century England stands an essay by Sir William Temple (1628–99) that contains the word sharawadgi,  which he claims is Chinese. As a result of his introducing this concept, Temple is considered the originator of the English landscape garden movement. In extended academic debates on urban planning or contemporary art, the term has played an ever-increasing role since the mid twentieth century. Several attempts have been made to decipher the word and grasp its meaning. Nonetheless, sharawadgi  cannot be apprehended in terms of sound and meaning only. It needs to be understood from a functional and historic context in the lands of its origin—Japan as we will see— as well as a practice of landscape design in Europe where it inspired new creative ideas. Imported art works, strikingly with their Japanese aesthetics, were re-interpreted to fit a European understanding. This reconstruction in turn was framed within the complex world of European tastes for landscape and other applied arts. Men of letters, widely learned and erudite like Temple, maintained their networks by writing letters and exchanging books and other gifts, eager for the most recent news on developments in the world of learning. In northern Europe these savants communicated in French, English, Dutch, German, or Latin; conceptual ideas were sometimes expressed in Greek. Temple’s world was this cosmopolitan Europe, receptive to the beauty of Asian art and concepts like his enigmatic sharawadgi. This paper intends to unravel the meaning and context of the word in Japan; to show the context in which it traveled to Europe and entered the circles of Temple; and to make clear how he placed it in a slightly different setting to serve his purpose. It concludes that “literary picturesque taste” is a proper translation for sharawadgi.

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