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Nōtan, the Dark-Light Principle

What connects an elusive German bookbinder, Ansel Adams, photographer of the Sierra Nevada, and turn-of-the- century American modernism? Nōtan – an emerging philosophy of design and composition, apparently universal but inspired especially by Japanese art, and centred on the harmonious contrast of black, white, and the greys in-between.

Max Thalmann, Der Dom, portfolio of 10 woodcuts, 1923Max Thalmann, Der Dom, portfolio of 10 woodcuts, 1923

Der Dom

We know virtually nothing about Max Thalmann, creator of the extraordinary woodcuts of Der Dom (The Cathedral), published in 1923. He probably would have preferred it that way; on his premature death in 1944 at just 54 years old, he left behind him an expansive archive of material produced during his years as chief designer for the publisher Eugen Diederichs in Jena, Thuringia, but among them barely a scrap of biographical information has survived. When curators in his home town of Weimar came to put on the first major exhibition of his work in 2010, they found it was as if Thalmann had quietly written himself out of existence, leaving only the work behind to speak for itself.

And what work it is. A student bookbinder and illustrator, he spent a brief period of time as a teacher at Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus before taking on a position at Diederichs’ publishing house, where his talents were involved at every stage of book design (here they are put to exquisite use in the design of Der Dom’s portfolio). During that time he had made three celebrated collections of woodcuts: the first, a Passion cycle, in 1921, and Der Dom two years later, followed immediately by a series of American cityscapes for which he is most commonly known. But the woodcuts of Der Dom are far the largest he ever produced: vast, complex splinterings of a velvet black void, revealing the illuminated interior of an anonymous Gothic cathedral set alight by the midday sun.Though the prints are entirely black and white, they conjure immediately an environment of glittered stained glass, the faint smell of incense and cold stone. We disappear, like Thalmann himself, with only the world of the cathedral around us.

Max Thalmann, Der Dom, portfolio of 10 woodcuts, 1923Max Thalmann, Der Dom, portfolio of 10 woodcuts, 1923

For the writer Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, curator and originator of the term ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (‘New Objectivity’) to describe the new generation of Thalmann’s fellow German modernists, these woodcuts represented the transcendent ‘gestalt’ of the cathedral itself. ‘He encapsulates the original atmosphere within a religious space…a miracle made of glass and stone, half building, half vegetation. Tall pillars, ceiling vaults leaning inn on one another, striving for the outside, pinnacles and towers pressing into the beyond.’

Emerging in Germany at the turn of the century, ‘Gestalt’ theory was a psychology of ‘form’ and pattern, where structures and objects are understood as singular things beyond the mere sum of their constituent parts. In Thalmann’s cathedral, we experience the place as a whole: a multisensory state in which sensation and spirituality are all blended into one, just as the vaulting pillars and the light of the rosary window come together to represent a singular expression of faith. But in Gestalt theory, the perception of single things from multiple patterns was more than spiritual feeling. It was essential to human evolution and survival itself: the ability for the eye and brain in tandem to bridge gaps in forms and patterns, for example, or see the invisible contours of an object, or for the ear to recognise the individual notes of a melody or a harmonic progression as a single refrain. It’s what allows us to decipher common illusions and tricks of the eye – or, in the case of Der Dom, to distinguish among the scattered forms of light on dark a procession of monks, with cowls raised, illuminated by the windows around them.

To any German art historian of the earlier 20th century, Der Dom would have struck them as perfect examples of ‘Gestalt’ in action. But an art professor on the West Coast of America would have recognised in Thalmann’s compositions a notion central to American modernism: ‘Nōtan’, the dark-light principle.

Rhythms of the New World

While Max Thalmann embarked on his solo career, several thousand miles away a young San Franciscan was wrestling with a crisis of identity. Having imagined he would become a concert pianist, Ansel Adams had long harboured an obsession with photography, venturing out as a teenager to capture views of the intimidating heights of Yosemite National Park. By the mid-1920s, he was slowly coming to the realisation that his future lay with the camera, not the keyboard, but he remained dissatisfied. In front of piano There was a disconnect between the emotional grandeur he felt, faced with the immensity of the landscape in front of him, and his resulting photographs in print.

In the early spring of 1927, Adams hiked with his friends and fiancé to the Diving Board, a harsh outcrop in the heights of Yosemite Valley, lugging camera and equipment in tow. Before him stood Half Dome, a sheer rock face eclipsed against the sun. He waited two hours for the light to curve its way round and his subject, and then seized his moment. With the first plate, a yellow filter, he took his shot, but he knew he had not captured the majesty of what he saw. His last plate, a dark red filter, would allow him to pump up the contrast of the resulting negative and achieve the brooding significance of the sky he felt looming overhead. It was his first experience, as he later remembered it, of true photographic ‘visualisation’: ‘seeing’ in his mind’s eye the precise image he was after, and capturing it, with the right tonal range, so that it could be realised in the darkroom.

detail from Ansel Adams, Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, 1927detail from Ansel Adams, Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, 1927

Adams’ experience at Half Dome prompted him to formalise the ‘visualisation’ process that would underpin his entire photographic output. With a friend, Fred Archer, he developed the ‘Zone System’, a process for determining the film exposure for any given subject (that is, how much light the camera needs to take in to avoid dull, detail-less blacks or over-blown, flashed areas of white). Adams and Archer’s system broke up the dynamic range of the camera, from darkest black to purest white, into 10 zones (sometimes 9 or 11, according to the model of choice). Depending on what was needed from a scene – whether shooting stark white snow on a forest in clear skies, for example, or a mist descending over a lake in early morning haze – exposure levels could be calibrated to the appropriate zone to ensure an ideal range of detail and contrast. Adams compared his system to the black and white keys of the piano: you can create a masterpiece with just two octaves, or with the full length of the keyboard. The important point was control: the Zone system provided the photographer with a method for capturing all that would be necessary to develop the ‘visualised’ scene in the darkroom – which was half the photographer’s work. ‘You don’t take a photograph’, Adams would say, ‘you make one.’ The negative he likened to a composer’s score; the print, its virtuoso performance.

There’s no evidence Max Thalmann or Ansel Adams ever crossed paths. In fact it would have been an impossibility. In the winter of 1923, Thalmann excitedly crossed the Atlantic to visit a brother living in America. He came first to New York, then Chicago, staying for several months, and from his experiences in these two cities he produced his last great series of woodcuts. Skyscrapers and factory roofs soar in these cityscapes, boulevards vault into the distance, cut in the same stark principles as Der Dom – of strong crisp lines and absolute dark and light in contrast. Published first in 1925, Thalmann enlarged the series from 10 to 24 and, as Ansel Adams scraped his way toward the face of Half Dome, published his final collection. He called it: ‘Rhythm of the New World’. Thalmann had hoped to emigrate to this brave new world, but it was never to be. A crisis of confidence saw him abandon his work as an independent artist, withdrawing instead into his book design work. While Adams began a whole new career, Thalmann abandoned his own, and with it any hopes of returning to America.

Max Thalmann, woodcut from Amerika im Holzschnitt, 1927Max Thalmann, woodcut from Amerika im Holzschnitt, 1927

On the surface of it, these two artists were looking in completely different directions. The pictures Adams sought were of a much older world, pristine, untouched and absent all signs of human presence: a true wilderness that was already disappearing as the Great Depression loomed on the horizon of Thalmann’s rising East Coast skyline. But there’s a remarkable sympathy between Adam’s photographs and Thalmann’s woodcuts, and it’s not simply a matter of black and white. It’s something architectural, a balance of contrasts, the special attention to silhouettes and negative space which emphasise the monolithic nature of the subjects they present us. In short, again, it’s Nōtan.


What is this peculiar theory? How does it pertain to Adam’s zones, or to Thalmann’s Expressionist style – and how did it end up in America?

Though the word is Japanese, it is strictly a neologism, first coined by an American – Ernest Fenollosa, curator of the Oriental Art department at Boston Museum, and a highly influential scholar of Japanese culture who had taught in Japan. The two traditional characters from which it is derived translate straightforwardly to ‘dark’ or ‘thick’ and ‘light’ or ‘pale’, with connotations of day and night, and in its most basic understanding, Nōtan is the balance of dark and light, positive and negative, that underlies design in almost every field: whether the ‘design’, or composition, of a canvas or the layout of an illustrated book. Working closely with Japanese woodblock prints and brushed ink landscape scrolls, Fenellosa determined that here was a system of tonal composition that was at once peculiarly Eastern, in direct opposition to the hyper- stark chiaroscuro of the late Renaissance and beyond, and yet also universal, as relevant to Rubens and Rembrandt as Hokusai or Utamaro.

Nōtan compositional designs from Arthur Dow’s Composition, first published 1899Nōtan compositional designs from Arthur Dow’s Composition, first published 1899

For the young Arthur Wesley Dow, searching for his own alternative teaching system to the old traditional school of drawing from life, Japanese art had been a revelation. When in 1891 he met Fenellosa, the two men shared ideas. Dow was convinced that here lay the future of a new way of looking at art instruction: of teaching composition based on abstract ideas of structure, balance, contrast and range, instead of sticking doggedly to the ‘realism’ of the natural scene. In 1899, he published the first edition of Composition, a ground- breaking book that brought Nōtan and other compositional philosophies to a generation of young American artists looking beyond traditional schools of painting (among his pupils was a young Georgie O’Keefe, Ansel Adams’ future friend).

Dow died in 1922, but not before passing on his philosophy to the artist and teacher Ralph Johonnot, a specialist in ‘prismatic’ colour theory, who in turn passed it on to Rudolph Schaeffer. Schaeffer founded his own ‘School of Rhythmo-Chromatic Design’ on its principles in 1924, merging with Nōtan the design skills he had adopted during wartime years spent training in Munich’s art district – not so very far from Max Thalmann. In less than 20 years, a new aesthetic tradition had been founded on America’s West Coast that continues to this day, with modernist colour theory – and Nōtan – at its heart.

Rudolph Schaeffer’s ‘School of Rhythmo- Chromatic Design’Rudolph Schaeffer’s ‘School of Rhythmo-Chromatic Design’

Dorr Bothwell

Schaeffer looked to the original Japanese to formulate hi own particular understanding of Nōtan: a theory of ‘dark-light – not dark AND light…the two are never fully divorced.’ As in the yin- yang symbol, there is always a little of each in the other, and between them an infinity of greys – just like Adams’ Zone system. The greatest Japanese paintings, for example, might exist within the shortest spectrum of middle grey tones. What they had in common with the starkest woodblock prints, however, was an essential balancing of those tones across space and scale – a balance, Schaeffer proposed, that could be found in all living things: ‘That’s the essence of Oriental art: the transition in between.’

Dorr Bothwell in her studio, 1967, Bill Foote, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian InstitutionDorr Bothwell in her studio, 1967, Bill Foote, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

For one of Schaeffer’s students, Dorr Bothwell, the practical applications of Nōtan ‘analysis’ were life-changing. If Max Thalamann was the quintessentially ‘provincial’ artist, representative of a Thuringian cultural scene he never quite escaped, Bothwell was as outgoing as they come. Having absorbed from Schaeffer the peculiar blend of Japanese philosophy and modernist colour theory of his ‘Rhytmo-Chromatic’ school, she set her sights on broader horizons. In 1928, after the death of her aunt, she used a $3,000 inheritance to travel to Samoa – without guide or chaperone – inspired by Robert Flaherty’s 1926 docu-fiction Moana. She found on its islands a world infused with pattern: from the shadows cast by palms on the sand to the woven siapo, the famous Polynesian barkcloth. Hungrily she documented what she saw in drawings, watercolours and woodcuts, and when the local Naval magistrate threatened to deport her for being a ‘disturbing element’, her hosts responded by granting her the ‘exquisite agony’ of tattooing tribal patterns across her legs, protecting her status as one of their own.

Returning to America, Bothwell’s later career was as eclectic as one might imagine. She became an enthusiastic pioneer of abstract screenprinting, years before the same medium was taken up in London print workshops. But folk patterns of the kind that now adorned her body, and in particular the interplay of negative and positive spaces, became a founding principle of her own teaching. A restless traveller, she took a sabbatical in Paris on a grant to study the Moyenesque decoration of medieval churches and cathedrals, and in a quirk of fate that binds Bothwell’s story once more to Max Thalmann’s, she described in an interview with writer Bruce Levene what had drawn her to the world of religious ornament:‘What I was so impressed with was the way the great hinges on a cathedral door would start out in a hinge, then turn into flowers and leaves. The main hinge was maybe 18” long, but it was 3’ long by the time it was finished with the flowers. Because in the 12th century everything was alive in the cathedral; it was a living thing and I felt nobody had really appreciated this.’

Max Thalmann, Der Dom, portfolio of 10 woodcuts, 1923Max Thalmann, Der Dom, portfolio of 10 woodcuts, 1923

For Dorr Bothwell, understanding Nōtan meant more than simply using negative and positive space in harmony, balancing a contrast of light and dark across a canvas, or grounding a foreground subject in a composed setting. It meant an entirely new way of thinking and seeing the world around you – something much closer to the exalted ‘Gestalt’ of Max Thalmann’s cathedral, a sense of one’s environment as undivided and interconnected. This was, she emphasised, a way of seeing that is intuitive, to be observed in all intuitive and folk art, but which much formal training has eroded in pursuit of a domination of nature. ‘In my course we talk about the thing-ness of things and no-thing,’ she told Levene. ‘Artists have to paint the background. You can’t just leave a hole. For example, our whole culture paid no attention to the air. We threw anything into it because it was a no- thing. Now the air has become some- thing and it’s about to poison us. We did the same with the ocean.’

By the mid 1960s, Bothwell’s expansion of the Nōtan philosophy had gained an audience. In 1964, the photographer Ansel Adams enlisted her help teaching design and composition for two weeks during his famous Yosemite Workshops, a duty she performed for over 15 years. Begrudging photographers who had hoped to spend their precious time with the legendary Adams were quickly won over by the indomitable Bothwell. when she demonstrated, by reducing their photographs to Nōtan equivalents in absolute black and white values, that their portraits and landscapes were full of unseen interruptions: telegraph poles growing out of people’s heads, trees overlapping at awkward intervals. In 1968, with the help of the writer Marlys Mayfield, Bothwell published her own book on Nōtan, informed by a lifelong accumulation of cross-cultural patterns and perspectives, and still in print to this day. ‘When we see the world as design artists see it,’ she writes, ‘we become especially aware of the interaction between positive and negative space. In architecture we become suddenly aware of the spaces between the windows; at the ballet we notice how the paces between the dancers open and close; and in music we realize that rhythm is made by shapes of silence between the notes.’

Max Thalmann, Der Dom, portfolio of 10 woodcuts, 1923Max Thalmann, Der Dom, portfolio of 10 woodcuts, 1923

Here we are back at Thalmann’s Gestalt, or with Ansel Adams visualising a bright sky in black, light and shadow rolling down the face of Half Dome like an arpeggio across black and white keys. ‘Everywhere we look we see this principle in action,’ Bothwell continues. ‘Trees are not silhouetted against blank air, but hold blue patterns between their leaves while the branches frame living shapes of sky.’

In Der Dom, Thalmann frames light like trees frame mosaics of sky. And for Dorr Bothwell, it is ‘this endless exchange between form and space [that] excites us’ and which sits at the heart of Nōtan. ‘When no preconceived ideas keep us from looking and we take all the time we need to really “feel” what we see – when we are able to do that – that universe opens up and we catch our breath in awe at the incredible complexity of design in the humblest things. It is only when this happens that we regain our sense of wonder.’

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Max Thalmann

Der Dom

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