beauty and evil

The Beauty of Matsumoto and its Castle

Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Prefecture, Japan


Many will remember the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympic Games, which were located in a region commonly referred to as the Japanese Alps. I was blessed to have the opportunity to camp there as a Boy Scout when growing up in Japan. Like the region in Europe for which this mountainous area is often named, Nagano has abundant snow in the winter, as well as hot and humid summers.

Matsumoto attracts many to the city and area for reasons apart from its attractive geography and its winter and summer recreational offerings. The region also has a strong history related to the revival of the Japanese folk art movement. Yet, the main association many will have with Matsumoto and Nagano Prefecture is the beautiful Matsumoto Castle (1594). It is typically ranked as being among the top three preserved historic and traditional Japanese castles, along with Himeji and Kumamoto Castles, and it remains my favorite among them.

Recently, I raised a question regarding how and why beauty might emerge from, and / or be expressed within the context of evil ( Matsumoto Castle was planned and built within the circumstances of clan warfare, to be a place from which warriors might spring to attack while also providing a place of safe refuge.

Yet, look at this remarkable ornamental structure, with its far beyond functional sweeping (and finally upturned) pagoda-like roof overhangs. Noticing this alerts us to the similarity between these architectural elements and those of strictly religious structures from a much earlier heritage, whether Buddhist or Shinto, like Matsumoto’s Zenkoji Temple (photo below).

Zenkoji Temple

So why, then, would feudal warlords build a castle, principally ordered toward physical safety through providing refuge from or preparation for lethal battle, by erecting a building resembling a temple or a shrine? This question is worth considering.

Possible answers to this question might involve speculation about the following: powerful and wealthy heads of clans desiring their dwelling places to resemble structures representing the highest artistic achievement of their culture; shrines and temples, as well as the abodes of princes and feudal lords, providing peaceful havens for rest and restoration for themselves and their families; and, people willing to live and die for what they worship with their deepest beliefs and commitments, as well as for what they most fear losing, whether spiritual or material.

I suspect the explanation lies in a complex mix of these several considerations.

We might also reflect on how, by contrast, medieval European castles generally evidence a primary concern for physical safety in the face of armed hostility, with aesthetic considerations not absent but distinctly secondary. How remarkable it is, then, to regard the principal surviving ancient Japanese castles, now visited by vast numbers of people who marvel at their peaceful beauty, and who can only vaguely imagine the warrior circumstances of their earliest inhabitants.

The Beauty of Picasso’s Guernica


It was probably in the summer of 1974 when I first stood before this remarkably stirring painting, Guernica, by Pablo Picasso (at MOMA, NYC). His fullest creative talents, as well as sensitivity to many aspects of our common human condition, came together to help him produce this recognized masterpiece. Not the least of the key features of this painting was his decision to render the composition in black, white and shades of grey.

Remember that he was ‘Pablo,’ not ‘Pierre,’ Picasso -that he was a Spaniard by birth, and in important ways, by self-identification.

In the context in which I compose these words, with Russia presently invading Ukraine, Picasso’s painting, and National Geographic’s somewhat unexpected reference to it at this moment, I am once again reminded of my recent visit to the Calder and Picasso exhibit at MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). The image below, featured early in the walk through of that exhibit, shows Calder standing in front on Picasso’s Guernica, looking at his own contribution to the Spanish Pavilion for the 1937 Paris International World’s Fair.

Noting these precedents, I want to raise a question, which cannot simply or quickly be answered. What is the role of art, and of our exploration of beauty, in relation to the reality of evil?

A powerful example of a response to this question is provided by Illya Repin’s painting, Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan (1581). A more recent example is Francisco de Goya’s 1814 painting, The Third of May. And, of course, so many portrayals of the crucifixion of Jesus.

A partial answer to the question I have posed is to say at least this: art and the exploration of beauty has the potential to remind us of our common humanity, and especially of the ideals we attach to our best and shared perceptions of what it means to be human – even in the face of evil and of death.

Picasso’s Guernica provides a compelling example of a good answer to this question.