Book review – “In praise of shadows”

20 January 2017


This book was recommended by my tutor at the end of assignment 1, due to my interest in the Japanese aesthetic. Unusually, it is an essay. Written by Japanese novelist Tanizaki (b.1886, d.1965) in 1933, it describes in vivid visual imagery, the beauty of traditional Japanese architecture, homeware and clothing. 

In contrary to Western ideas of functionality and newness, Tanizaki celebrates the beauty of the ‘worn’ look; of dull pewter, of the soft worn surface of traditional Japanese lacquerware, and of wooden surfaces. He describes how, in the modern aesthetic of bright illumination and reflective, sterile surfaces, these items might appear dull and lack-lustre. However, in a traditional Japanese room, lit by lamp-light they take on a glow and softness which can only then be appreciated. Indeed, a traditional Japanese room has areas dedicated by design to darkness, and it is this contrast, the author argues, which is so very important; for without darkness, there are no shadows, no mystery, no beauty.

In relation to my practice, this book has helped me appreciate some of the sensibilities which underly the Japanese aesthetic and which influence Japanese culture. It has prompted me to think about corroded surfaces differently; to consider dullness as a legacy of use, and as a reflection of elapsed time rather than a patina which must be removed. An appearance of newness need not be desirable – it tells us nothing about the history or age of an object, nor the beauty of it’s transient decay. These are themes which could easily be explored and developed for a textile project.


Tanizaki, J. (2001) In praise of shadows. Translated by Harper, T. and Seidensticker, E. (1977) London. Vintage. 


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