Mondrian and the Japanese Dive Bomber

Makoto Fujimura

Since moving into the city, I am having an easier time getting to the the museum shows in New York; and recently I carved out a morning to see the Mondrian exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The heralded Mondrian exhibit was indeed comprehensive and gave us a rare opportunity to glimpse into the whole of Mondrian's career, from his early drawings and watercolors (which, by the way, are remarkable technical masterpieces in themselves) to his late grid-filled abstractions of the city streets. Growing up in a strict Calvinist home, his early works attest to his inner search for freedom from the rigid religiosity of his parents. In fact, his early watercolors and drawings anticipated his embracing of theosophy, a pantheistic amalgamation of Christianity and eastern religions; the trees filled with spiritual yearning and mystery as well as the dark, ominous glow of amaryllis so impeccably rendered and deeply felt.

His late works became more and more rigid, mirroring, I think, the rigidity of his parents' religious outlook. He countered the confusion and chaos of life in a war-torn world with solidity and clearly defined colors. And by doing so, he had to revert to the foundation of the solid vertical and horizontal lines that his early drawings and watercolors fought against. Consciously or unconsciously, he embraced the structural representation of his earlier upbringing (although most likely did not embrace faith in Christ). By doing so his works ground the language of vertical and horizontal right into the vertigo of modernity and the nebulous cloud of surrealism. We cannot possibly ignore his influence today, just as he was not able to escape the influence of the religion of his parents.

I pondered all of this as I walked through the halls of the museum, and into the permanent collections section of photography. In between the Avedons and Mapplethorpes something caught my attention.

US Navy A Burning Japanese Dive Bomber Shot Down by Anti-Aircraft Fire From a Navy Carrier 1944-1945. Gelatin-silver print.

It was a photograph of the Kamikaze Bomber, drawing an arc toward the ocean with its flame and smoke. The arc was so perfect and nearly complete. The anonymous navy photographer caught the plane at a millisecond before it hit the ocean. Beyond the plane was another Navy carrier, its silhouette ominously looming on the horizon. In the foreground corner was the Navy carrier on which the photographer stood, its plane with folded wings a shiny black shadow. The photogragh was flawless in composition, perfectly executed and planned. I can just see the photographer taking shot after shot (as his comrades literally took shots with artillery). I'm sure that when he took this one, he knew he had something.

It captures the moment of death of an individual pilot, and yet it captures in a single photo the essence of a momentous war between nations. The photo stands as a momentary reflection in the rushing torrent of time, and freezes the urgency of the moment. For me, being a Japanese-American, it felt like the drama was taking place within my heart. This was photography at it's best; a marriage of technology and art , poignantly capturing a piece of the historical. Both form (technology) and content (war) were perfectly fused and expressed. While Mondrian sought to escape this horror in finding refuge in his grid and colors, this photographer served the moment by confronting horror with precision and artfulness. Did the photographer know his work would even survive? Did he survive the war? Both Mondrian and the anonymous photographer were witnesses of war's horror; how they reacted to their circumstances was strongly reflected in their art. They both responded to a historical reality, and represent to me two different approaches; an approach of immanence and an approach of transcendence to capture reality. Great art always deals with both the transcendence and immanence, both heaven and earth.

The photograph represents to me one response to significant events in history-- an approach of immanence. He actively participated , going there and observing, and capturing the events in a photo. This photo, though, at the same time, transcends the moment, making it memorable. Mondrian represents the other-- a transcendental approach. He analyzed history philosophically, objectively and passively, and sought to express his utopian vision. What succeeds in his work is that the transcendent, utopian vision did not remain in heaven but landed on earth, with grids and colors creating a delightful patina.

And yet, today, Mondrian's works are full of cracks. The paint is too much of earth to fully contain the utopian vision. We create works striving for heaven, but ultimately the earth wins. And if that is true in our works, how much more is it true in our lives? How many of us live and strive for the transcendent in our lives but find ourselves trapped in the immanent? Our circumstances prevent us from experiencing the freedom that we long for. We fall in love but then our relationships fail us, leaving us at last disillusioned. We create masterpieces but we fall far away from being masterpieces ourselves. Are our dreams and ideals simply an escape from reality, or are they our connection to the greater reality? Are we earthbound, or heavenbound?

As we celebrate Easter this month, we need to remind ourselves that Christ's resurrection represents a fusion of greater power and significance than the atomic bomb. This fusion recreated the transcendent and the immanent, heaven and earth. Christ rose not as a ghost but as a supernatural creation of another dimensional plane. Christ possessed the immanent power of cooking and eating food with his disciples. But he also possessed the transcendent power of walking in and out a locked room at will (see John 20 and 21). He is the Creator of a new order and dimension, and he will restore all things under this new greater reality. By trusting and building our lives on this reality of Christ, we can be heavenbound.

And therefore this single, historic event is the key to understanding our lives and art. This is the only source of hope that heaven will triumph over the earth. Christ is the only one who can heal the schism between the transcendent reality of who you are made for and what your works strive towards, and the immanent, material reality of who you are and what your works actually are. No other religion dares to go this far in claiming so much; substantiated by a historical event, it shatters even what we can imagine a religion to be. Christ appeared in a new body that penetrates and redefines the old. If, as has been said by many artists, death is the most powerful content for art, then the resurrection gives us a revolutionary new context by which we can create and live.

The anonymous photographer captured a significant reality of a war that reflects the schism within us. Perhaps in the Japanese bomber being shot down we see so much of ourselves being shot down by the cruel reality of this life as we reach for the stars. The bomber pilot thought that his purpose in life was to sacrifice his life for the god of the rising sun--the emperor of Japan. Easter tells us that we are built for so much more than dying for a mortal man. We are built to live to glorify our Creator. We are built to serve him and, yes, die for him, because he is the only one for whom we can die and find true life. He is the one who said , "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"(John 11:25-26)

Mako Fujimura, April 1996.

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Copyright © 1996, Makoto Fujimura. Used by permission.