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Book Review: Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

I was given a copy of Leonard Koren’s “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers’ for my birthday – it was a book I’d wanted for  a long time, so I was thrilled to receive it. I’ve been fascinated by Japanese art for some time – particularly that of the Edo period, and this guide to the beauty of things impermanent, of reducing design down to the bare minimum, so that pieces retain a kind of earthy beauty but eschew all decoration that is not fundamental to the function or structure seemed like a natural progression.

I have to say it’s not an easy read. I guess that in its very essence, wabi-sabi is so ephemeral it is difficult to define, so there seems to be a lot of talking around the subject, and a lot of negative definitions – i.e. defining wabi-sabi by what it is not.

I also very much felt that Koren was grinding a personal axe in places, with his cutting comments about the iemoto and modern tea schools, and his accusations that they have so formalised the tradition and the aesthetic that they have robbed it of its essential nature. There’s a large number of text notes, but these are all placed at the back of the book – hugely distracting, since I found myself flipping backwards and forwards through the book, and losing the flow of my reading. I’m not a fan of text notes in general, and particularly not those I have to go looking for. If it’s important enough to be in the book, then it ought to be in the main text, imo, unless it’s a bibliography reference.

All this left me feeling very dissatisfied after the first read-through – that despite the beautiful images and illustrations, that there was very little of substance in this book, and nothing of any practical use to me, as an artist and designer.

However … I went back to the text, this time ignoring the pre-ambles – the introduction and the sections on historical and other considerations – and re-read the heart of the book. This time, it was easier to ignore the distractions, and I really got to grips with the metaphysical and spiritual elements, which in turn inform the wabi-sabi state of mind, and its intrinsic values. And this time, I got a real understanding of the material and aesthetic qualities that inform wabi-sabi art.

I’ve been through it several times now, and each time I become a little clearer on what I’m looking at. The section giving a comparison of both the similarities and differences between wabi-sabi and modernism is extremely useful, and on revisiting the introduction I realised that I’d completely missed the important information that this book is not intended to be a comprehensive guide – it is a “tentative, personal first step” towards reconstructing or recreating an aesthetic tradition that has been corrupted and fragmented it, and should be read as such. It is not, and does not claim to be, an authoritative and complete analysis.

Just as Koren says that “to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow down, be patient, and look very closely”, so too with this book. It both needs and merits a slow, careful read, and probably several reads, to fully understand and appreciate the unfolding of the knowledge contained within it.