The art we hang on our walls at home may become personal and meaningful. It may even deepen understanding of who we want to be.
The other day, I had a Proustian flashback of my earliest memory of looking at art as a child.
The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857)
I was born in my maternal grandparents’ house and lived there until the age of six, when my parents built their new house a short walk away. My grandparents’ lived in a modest, traditional Japanese house with a huge Japanese garden. I vividly remember every tidy corner. The floors of the corridors and the main entrance were always shining like they were wet, because my grandmother would wipe them with a damp cloth everyday. I grew up with the smell of oil paintings, because of my grandfather painted as a hobby. His art supplies and work-in-progress canvases were scattered all over his study, and some were displayed in the living room. However, my first memory of a painting was a reproduction of The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet. It hung on the wall next to the bathroom, facing the main entrance.
It was considered odd to hang Western art by the front door of a traditional Japanese house, but I did not know this yet. The reason I remember the painting so well was that the contrast between light and dark created a special emotional tension for me. As a five-year-old, I was afraid of darkness, especially walking alone to get to the bathroom at the end of the dark corridor. Sometimes I ran into a huge spider in the corner of the ceiling. Every time I got close to the bathroom door, I looked up to see if there was a spider, which determined my walking speed and my heart rate. At the same time, I briefly looked at the dimly lit painting.
In dim light, the painting glowed with soft, warm, somber colours, blending into the glistening dark brown of the wooden floor, easing my fear. I often stood there all alone, mesmerized by how delicate and soft those women seemed, and yet how lifelike. The sculpted weight of the figures in the foreground were lit by the slanting light of the setting sun. The play of light and dark created the illusion of depth and carried the drama of the painting. I do not remember if I paid any attention to that painting in daylight. But when night fell, it grew deeply engaging, glowing against my grandparents’ bare corridor wall, as if it had its own circadian rhythm. Initially, it calmed my fear of darkness. As I grew, it evolved into something more complex. I feel my life would be different if I had not glanced at that painting everyday. I wonder how it helped form my subconscious sense of self and my aesthetics.
Later, as an adult, I saw the original in the Musée d’Orsay, and I read about Millet. Although he was initially criticized for depicting rural poverty and class strife in nineteenth century France, the skillful way he depicted the transient light on the landscape was a major influence on the Impressionists. He also conveyed the dignity of rural workers, living so close to nature that they became sublime. This idea of finding the sublime in the commonplace is familiar to the Japanese mind as the spirit of “wabi-sabi,” the aesthetics of simplicity, imperfection, and withered things. I wish I could have had a conversation with my — now deceased — grandfather about why he liked that painting so much so that he hung it in the entrance hall.
The Gleaners must have stirred the heart of my grandparents, who embraced modesty, labor, humility, and nature. I wonder what my grandmother saw in the painting when she was wiping the corridor floor on her hands and knees. She devoted her whole life to her family and endured hardships during and after WW2. She raised five children, served her husband and mother-in-law with great pride, and helped raise many grandchildren. The life of women then revolved around caregiving without any help from the technology we now find essential. I still remember the feeling of touching the rough, cracked skin of her hands. She always kept me from washing dishes, saying, “It will damage your beautiful, silky hands.” How caring she was. She must have taken solace seeing herself in those dignified, hard-working women in the painting, Did serve her like a sea shanty or a work song?
喜多川歌麿 （Kitagawa Utamaro)
In the present time, one work of art that hangs in my home has travelled from my hometown (Kumamoto), to Tokyo, to New York City, and now to Canada. It’s a replica of a Kitagawa Utamaro drawing in the Nikuhitsu (hand-painted) Ukiyo-e genre, which became popular among ordinary people during the Edo Period. My grandfather had been collecting ukiyo-e reproductions, and he gave me a few when I left Kumamoto three decades ago. While I cannot find the title and information of this particular drawing of a mother nursing a child, I personally call it Mother Multitasking. Utamaro painted many ukiyo-e drawings depicting this most natural and satisfying aspect of motherhood.
I was a formula-fed baby, because my mom was a working professional; also, she could not produce enough breast milk. I was thus somewhat ignorant about nursing before I became a mother. In the final months of my three-year post-doctoral fellowship in cancer epidemiology at Columbia University, my daughter Maya was born. Since I was just appointed Associate Research Scientist at the Department of Epidemiology, I took less than a month of maternity leave. I was back doing research full time, forging a career in academia.
And yet, I am a living proof that motherhood brings dramatic brain changes to women. I was determined to exclusively feed Maya breast milk for at least one full year. Plan A was to freeze my milk and hire a nanny. But Maya was stubborn and kept refusing the bottle. So I switched to Plan B, which was to keep nursing, hire a nanny, and bring both baby and nanny to the university. I still vividly remember how difficult it was to stay focused during my presentation at a seminar after I saw my nanny out of the corner of my eye. She was bouncing Maya, who could not hold still any longer and was about to cry. I was slowly but surely getting good at both nursing and my work. My six-month-old baby even travelled all the way to Tucson, AZ, to join me for my invited lecture at the Arizona Cancer Center, making the trip doubly memorable. Nevertheless, through trial and error, I managed to exclusively breastfeed my baby for her first critical year and beyond with the kind help of many people.
During my first year of motherhood, I kept gazing at the Utamaro drawing hanging in my study. In the modern world, public nursing is often frowned upon, depending on where you live. There was no word for “breast milk” in the Edo period in Japan; they just called it milk, as nursing was the only nutrition a newborn human could get. But nursing is more than just nutrition. It promotes bonding and attachment between mother and baby, which plays a critical role in a child’s emotional development. As a mother-in-training, I was not only guided by this painting, but also privately celebrating its magnificent depiction of motherhood. I often giggled because Maya was doing the exact same thing as the child in the painting. How universal! I wish I could express my thanks to Utamaro, the 18th century artist who drew nature as it was. Could he ever imagine that public nursing could become so controversial? Probably not. As nursing became second nature, my feeling toward the painting evolved from wonder to contentment and comradery with all mothers, past, present, and future. I look forward to the day my daughter can embrace this painting in her own way.
These are merely two examples of how art has intertwined with my life. I wonder how art might deepen my understanding of my future identity. I am revisiting a hand-painted ukiyo-e, WOMEN IN SEASONS OF SNOW, MOON AND FLOWER by Katsukawa Shunsou. According to Japanese scholars, the artist reimagined the three most influential literary women of the Heian period (794–1185), including Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, who lived some 800 years ago. Interestingly, many ukiyo-e artists of the Edo period, like Shunsou, were highly knowledgeable about classic literature, and they used literature to evoke their creativity. What message did Shunsou really want to convey through this drawing? It is up to us to find a personal connection. Take a close look at the reimagined Murasaki Shikibu holding a calligraphy brush, showing blank pages of her notebook, gazing at the moon in the long autumn evening, resting her elbow on her desk, absorbed in thought. Alluring and captivating, the painting speaks to me of a future that is still unwritten, full of possibilities.