The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
To immerse oneself in the sequence of works by Makoto Fujimura known as “Water Flames” is to undertake a journey toward the mystery and beauty of paradox. As with the record of any journey, the viewer of these works has a choice: you can merely glance with pleasure at the passing sights, or you can imaginatively enter the path of the artist.
If you choose to become a fellow traveler, you are likely to discover that you not only travel alongside the artist, but also in the company of those who have gone before him. “Water Flames” derives its initial aesthetic inspiration from the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and in particular the late work, Four Quartets, written during and immediately after the cataclysm of World War II. Eliot’s experience of the war was direct and immediate: he remained in London throughout the conflict, serving as a fire warden, walking the streets each night after the air raid sirens had blown all the clear signal, searching for fire and survivors.
That Fujimura should find such a powerful resonance with Four Quartets in the months and years following 9/11 should come as no surprise. Like Eliot, he struggled to come to terms with the reality of evil and of suffering on a massive scale. For the artist, the challenge is how to remain totally honest about the darkness and yet find hope—a hope that itself must shun any hint of sentimentality.
The more Fujimura delved into the richness of Eliot’s late masterpiece, the more he came to realize that Eliot himself drew upon his own artistic guide: Dante Alighieri, the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. Dante, who had known both war and exile, had, in turn, relied on the Roman poet Virgil, whose epic, The Aeneid, dealt with the moral and emotional conflicts within a budding empire.
Of course, in detailing the historical precedents that inform the “Water Flames” series, one cannot ignore the centrality of the Nihonga tradition of Japanese art.
To speak of all these strata of aesthetic influence may seem overly precious, but for the artist engaged in a high-risk attempt to make sense of pain and grief, companionship on the journey is a necessity, not a luxury. The need to reach out and find kindred spirits across the ages is a universal phenomenon. As Eliot puts it in Four Quartets: “the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”
In the spirit of Dante and Eliot, “Water Flames” traces a journey—one might almost say, a pilgrimage. As the work of each of these artists attests, the inner and outer landscapes that appear along the way belong to the realm of paradox. To call a collection of paintings “Water Flames” is to boldly invoke paradox.
But what do we really mean by the word? For some people, it merely signifies mystification—mumbo-jumbo without substance. But for others paradox is the only language we humans have to approach the precincts of mystery.
There are various mathematical and scientific paradoxes that are baffling to the mind. But the deeper, more emotionally compelling sense of paradox is that of an apparent contradiction that somehow manages to embody a larger truth. The best paradoxes always makes sense, at least at the level of our intuition. The language of love—whether human or divine—is full of paradox. We speak of love so powerful that it hurts, of darkness that illuminates, of dying in order to live.
So, too, with the paintings of “Water Flames.” Here we have water creating fire, as Fujimura pours his pigments and awaits their ignition upon heavy Kumohada paper. The mineral elements of earth are crushed and ground only to be reborn in the airy lightness of translucent color.
Fire destroys but it also purges impurities, clears away choking brush in order to allow for more fruitful growth. As Fujimura has stated, he resonates most with the section of Dante’s Divine Comedy known as the Purgatorio, where the souls experience suffering not as punishment, but as the “refiner’s fire,” a paradoxically painful and joyous experience. For Dante, sin and evil are not blithely turned into mere stepping stones; they retain their power to haunt and wound. But even a wound can break something open so as to reveal another beauty beneath the surface.
In his artist’s talk on “Water Flames,” Fujimura quotes Eliot on Dante:
Because he could do everything else, is for that reason the greatest ‘religious’ poet, though to call him [merely] a ‘religious poet’ would be to abate his universality. The Divine Comedy expresses everything in the way of emotion, between depravity’s desire and the beatific vision, that man is capable of experiencing.
While Fujimura would never compare himself to Dante, it is safe to say that he, too, achieves a universality in these works—a language that can speak to people across the diversity of human experience.
Nor should we be surprised that Fujimura’s explorations of fire has taken him in the direction of monochromatic works. Nothing can be more paradoxical than to penetrate the heart of something that seems to be singular only to find that within that unity is a hidden multiplicity, a richness that a broader palette would have obscured.
That the culminating work o this sequence should be a monumental piece entitled “Golden Fire” has a sort of epic inevitability about it. Gold is the quintessential element we think of as requiring the refiner’s fire. It is a heavy substance that somehow lifts into what the writer Milan Kundera has called “the unbearable lightness of being.” This element, found deep within the earth and created thought he turbulent processes of change, becomes something that symbolizes the eternal and unchanging. Gold is the possession of kings, and yet we often speak of the common person as having a heart full of it.
In the terrible fires of Hiroshima and 9/11, as well as the daily ordeals we all face, the gold within the human heart may yet be glimpsed. It is the special role of gifted artists like Makoto Fujimura to remind us of this paradoxical truth.