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A Matter of Perspective
A New Perspective on Japanese Fountain Pens:
Observations on Lambrou and Sunami’s “Fountain Pens of Japan”.
John Mottishaw demonstrates how a new book reveals Japan's extraordinary achievements in pen artistry.

By John Mottishaw

Originally published in PenWorld Magazine, Vol 26, No.2, 2013.

A New Perspective on Japanese Fountain Pens:  Observations on Lambrou and Sunami’s “Fountain Pens of Japan”

A New Perspective on Japanese Fountain Pens:  Observations on Lambrou and Sunami’s “Fountain Pens of Japan”Andreas Lambrou and Masamichi Sunami’s masterful new book, Fountain Pens Of Japan, offers an authoritative look at more than a century’s worth of historical and technological achievement, as Japan, not an original innovator in the world of modern pens, came to equal and even surpass the achievements in pen design and technology pioneered in the West.

The over 1700 photographs in this volume, many of pens with elaborately painted Maki-e designs, also offer a unique opportunity to explore the cultural differences in the use of perspective between Western and Asian art.  While the use of perspective in Western art is based on three-dimensionality and a fixed point-of-view, Asian art relies on atmospheric perspective, subtle gradation, and an attitude which celebrates the hand.

            These differences in approach are often reflected in the designs of the pens and nibs themselves.   Japanese pens, far more than their Western counterparts, tend to feature elaborately textured and lacquered surfaces, and Japanese nibs, such as the famed specialty nibs created by Nagahara, father and son, for the Sailor Pen Company, often qualify as works of art in their own right.

A Matter of Perspective
Maki-e painted pens were invented in Japan and continue to be an important part of the pen culture there.  Urushi lacquer first had a utilitarian purpose: preventing the discoloration of the hard rubber base on which it was applied. But the long tradition of lacquer as a Japanese decorative art soon came to be applied to pens as well, especially with the Dunhill Namiki collaboration beginning in the 1920’s.  As with painting, a different approach is clearly evident. 

Where in the West, we are accustomed to the use of linear perspective, a system of representing space invented in the Renaissance, perspective in the East is largely atmospheric, relying on subtle gradation of darks and lights. This distinction is not trivial; rather, it has to do with the position of the viewer. In the West, we utilize a fixed point of view, which is locked in place by lines that recede to a vanishing point.  We accept this way of seeing very naturally, as it has been reinforced since the early nineteenth century by the camera and photography. After all, the idea of linear perspective developed from the camera obscura, a Renaissance development.

A New Perspective on Japanese Fountain Pens:  Observations on Lambrou and Sunami’s “Fountain Pens of Japan”The completely different relationship to space and form utilized in Japan has roots both in Taoism and in Buddhism.  In this system of spatial orientation, there is a special focus on nature, an appreciation of evanescence: of non-existence and the void. This orientation is evident in scroll painting and other Japanese decorative arts, particularly in temple art.

We can see an expression of this attitude in the way space is treated on the surface of Japanese fountain pens, as well.  Notice the way distance is established on the cap of the pen on the left below.  There are no lines of perspective to guide us into the distance.  Rather we feel the distance by virtue of the subtle gradation from form to non-form. This is the Asian convention of atmospheric perspective.  Asian perspective creates the illusion of space by atmosphere, by separating the rocks and trees, the mountains and creatures, with empty space.
Also notice the use of seemingly random visual events on the surface of the two pens to the right.  This irregular spacing of graphic elements is rarely seen in the decorative design of Western pens. It also allows for a predominance of visual texture as a surface mode, sometimes even becoming tactile with “stone finishes” or bamboo raised segments. 
(Image from page 196: Three ladies pens from the 1920’s, not signed)

The technical skills that allow for this kind of depiction and surface treatment were already well practiced when the fountain pen came to Japan. Urushi lacquer work and its elevated form, Maki-e were being applied to dishware, trays, boxes, and personal objects long before the pen came along. The pen “canvas,” which wraps continuously around the surface, lends itself beautifully to rendering space through interval and gradation.  As well, a motif that winds around this surface entices the participation of the holder of the pen, exploring space as a way-with-no-end, a Buddhist concept.
(Image from page 162:  O-hashido fountain pen, 250 type, c 2005)

Japanese pen makers have the capacity to focus not only on finely painted lacquer work, but also on nibs. Calligraphy as an art has long been part of the education system in Japan and the elevation of calligraphers to National Treasure status further demonstrates the importance of writing in Japan.  When the fountain pen came to Japan, it was considered a solution to the problem of writing brushes that wear out quickly. 
Language says a lot about this attitude. The word for fountain pen in Japanese is Manninhitsu, which means, “10,000 year brush.”  The idea that an object might be considered to last as long into the future as the last ice age is into the past is certainly optimistic.  However, the sentiment is clearly expressed.  Giving something this grand a name makes it anything but a throwaway object.
(Image from page 25 with caption: Namiki seven-grade nib selection, 1950’s.  “Handwriting is a symbol of personality.”)

In the decorative designs seen on Japanese pens, we see not just an adaptation of norms and techniques started in the West, but a complete rethinking and an evolution with regard to just what a pen can be – not just a utilitarian writing instrument or upscale status object, the fountain pen in Japanese culture is often a work of art in its own right. Lambrou and Sunami’s impressive achievement in “Fountain Pens of Japan” is to make the evolution of this artistic achievement more accessible and apparent than ever before.

- JOHN MOTTISHAW taught drawing, design and sculpture at Santa Monica and Pomona colleges while pursuing a career as a wood and metal sculptor. He currently runs Classic Fountain Pens, Inc.
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