Watanabe, Sadao - VM - Sandra Bowden
Sadao Watanabe: Boat in the Storm
by Sandra Bowden
Over the last year I have had the privilege of curating and organizing a travelling exhibition, Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe, commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Japan’s foremost Christian artist of the twentieth century. It is gratifying to study the life of Sadao Watanabe and realize how dedicated he was to his calling. Sadao was converted to Christianity at the age of seventeen after fighting tuberculosis. He promised God that if he were healed he would create art that narrated the Bible. There were those close to him who discouraged his biblical art, fearing that he could not make a living creating prints of Bible stories. However, even in a culture unreceptive to Christianity, his commitment never wavered.
Watanabe found his own distinctive voice that merged both his art and his faith through using a traditional Japanese stencil art form for dyeing kimonos that he hoped would speak to his people. He said, ‘My task is to stand within the artistic tradition of Japan… Theology will not take deep root in Japanese soil if it is merely an import.’ Within the framework of his Christian faith he was able to translate the biblical narratives into Japanese environments, thereby giving them broad resonance. Watanabe was less concerned with representing visual reality than with finding ways to communicate his faith. The result is a body of art that is an expression of deep faith as well as a valuable contribution to the history of Christian art.
Watanabe revisited several biblical stories, finding new ways to present these narratives. He did many versions of The Last Supper, Noah’s Ark, and Jesus Washing the Disciple’s Feet. Another subject that he repeated numerous times is one of my favorites—The Boat in the Storm. I was with my family as we came over the hill from Nazareth approaching the Sea of Galilee and there before us was this ‘not so large’ body of water. In disbelief my husband said, ‘No way could there have been such a storm.’ The next morning we took a boat ride on the lake and out of nowhere came a storm that sent waves pounding over the second story of our boat, soaking us to the bones. Suddenly we had a new appreciation for the disciples who were in the boat with Jesus.
In The Boat in the Storm, Watanabe has clustered the disciples into the vessel with the waves beating against its sides and the sail flapping in the wind. The disciples are wide-eyed and fearful, but Jesus is asleep in the midst of all the commotion. Jesus can be identified by the cruciform or tri-radiant halo (a convention devised in the Middle Ages to signify diety), where the disciples have a simple halo surrounding their heads. They awaken Jesus expecting him to help in the dangerous situation, but what the disciples do not fully understand is that his presence is enough. He is not going to let them perish.
How many times when we are terrified by the circumstances surrounding us, we forget that Christ is surrounding us when things seem to be askew. We need to remember that he is always present and ready to help. We have his promise that ‘He will never leave us or forsake us’ (Hebrews 13:5). We are told to call upon the Lord, asking him to help us in our time of trouble. So, we like the disciples can with confidence call out to Jesus asking him to calm our seas.
Sadao Watanabe (1913 – 1996) was baptized a Christian at age 17. He quickly combined his new faith with an interest in preserving the traditional Japanese folk art of stencil dying, called katazome. Over time Watanabe came to be Japan’s leading artist to portray biblical scenes. While his work was well received in his homeland, it was also highly regarded internationally as evidenced by art exhibitions at leading institutions such as the British Museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, and the Vatican Museum. Watanabe’s fame notwithstanding, the artist’s chief desire was to create art that could be enjoyed by common people and displayed in ordinary settings. With this goal in view he chose scenes from the Bible as his primary subject matter in order to communicate the truth of Scripture in the Japanese context.
Sandra Bowden is a painter and printmaker living in Chatham, MA. In 2005 Square Halo published The Art of Sandra Bowden. With over 100 one person shows, her work is in many collections including the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, the Museum of Biblical Art, and the Haifa Museum. She is also a passionate collector of religious art dating from the early 15th century to the present. Miserere and Guerre by George Rouault was shown from her collection at MOBIA in NYC in 2006. Sandra was president of Christians in the Visual Arts from 1993-2007 and has curated many exhibitions and coordinated the CIVA exhibitions program since its inception. She is a Trustee of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. Recently she has curated several exhibitions of biblical art that travel to religious institutions, the most recent of which is Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe. She studied at Massachusetts College of Art and received her BA from the State University of New York. For more information on Sandra Bowden go to www.sandrabowden.com and www.bowdencollections.com
For the article ‘The Vocation of the Artist’ by Sandra Bowden, click here
For an article by Todd Jenkins about the work of Sandra Bowden, click here
For an article by Ann Brannen about Sadao Watanabe, click here
ArtWay Visual Meditation August 12, 2012