There was an empty place in my heart
Although today Makoto Fujimura is known for intertwining his faith with his artwork, this was not always the case. While studying in Japan an ancient technique of painting called Nighona, Fujimura had found an empty place in his heart- he was searching for a deeper meaning and purpose.
Being an artist, he wanted to know where this well of self expression came from. But the more he focussed on himself, the less he could find in himself.
“I realised I didn’t have a place in my heart- a shelf in my heart- to hold that beauty. The very beauty I was creating.”
A poem that changed his world
Fujimura was asking lots of questions. It was while reading William Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem that Fujimura’s eyes started to see the truth of Jesus. In the poem, Blake creates a composite figure called Albion who is a symbol of searching humanity. Albion addresses Jesus as he is on the Cross with the same questions that Fujimura was asking at the time.
Albion says “O Lord, my selfhood cruel marches against thee. Deceitful to meet thee in his pride. And Jesus answers from the Cross and says “Fear not Albion. Unless I die, thou cannot live.” Jesus then goes into a soliloquy which is one of the most beautiful summarizations of what Christians call the “Good News.”
“Wouldst thou love one who never died for thee or ever die for one who has not died for thee. And if God dieth not for man and gives Himself eternally for man, man cannot exist. For God is love as man is love, and every kindness to another is but a little death to the divine image.”
Fujimura realised he wouldn’t come close to understanding this love, if it wasn’t shown to him first. He notes:
“It takes a special encounter to say that Jesus is, and was and will be God.”
After reading the poem, a wave of revelation flooded over Fujimura. He didn’t realise he had become a Christian until a year or two later. But he noted in himself, that he started to see God in a different way- through an artist’s eye.
Picasso and Rembrandt
Fujimura considers the focus on self-expression in modern art requires artists to have a strong ego. As an artist he sees this as a test of our faith- will we turn inward into self and wear many masks to uphold a strong ego as required by the modern world, or will we die to self so we can live in Christ.
Fujimura recalls visiting a great exhibit at the Washington National Gallery several years ago of self-portraits of two celebrated artists- Picasso (1881-1973) and Rembrandt (1606-1669).
The Spanish painter was filled with talent and undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, although as Fujimura and others observe, Picasso was full of ego. The self-portraits of Picasso as he nears death reveals something interesting about this approach to art.
“At the end of his life, he (Picasso) disappears, there is nothing left.”
Rembrandt, known Dutch Master, on the other hand lost everything, his career, his family. At the end of his life, he had nothing. But Rembrandt’s last self-portrait is his greatest self-portrait. Fujimura reflects “It literally glows, with inner light, peace and joy.”
So you compare the two and you see distinctively two paths for the artist, one pursuing your ego, self-expression, fame and fortune. The other is losing the world to gain your soul.
“I compare the two and ask, which one do I want?
For Fujimura he decided the path of Rembrandt- the path of faith, the path of light.
A slow journey
In some of Fujumara’s paintings there are over 80-100 layers of paint. Nighona is a slow process of painting culminating in “slow art.” Makoto has learned to appreciate this traditional Japanese style of painting, as he does watching his garden grow on his farm outside his studio in Princeton, New Jersey. It recovers a sense of rhythm that Fuijumura ponders may have been forgotten in the industrial age. Fujumurua observes:
“You learn to slow down. Just like it takes a while for plants to grow, you are waiting for art to grow in that sense.”
It’s this slow process that creates a mystery in Makoto’s paintings. Like the mystery of the Cross, which requires a confrontation of beauty through brokenness, Makuto’s paintings are able to reach people who don’t have words or ways to process their pain and fracturedness.
Hiroshi Motoki is a Makoto collector. Fuijumara’s paintings have helped him out of his depression, although he admits, he found his works hard to grasp at first. However the longer he looked at his paintings, something clicked in Hiroshi’s heart: