Feature Article

Art Principles

The Tokonoma Window

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By Carl Bergstrom, USA

The window in the tokonoma serves dual purposes. The window provides a way in for light; it provides a way out, for the eye. The former is well appreciated. I will treat the latter here.

Just as a successful composition requires a path that eye can follow smoothly into the image, a display also requires a way out by which the eye can gracefully exit without beating an awkward retreat the way that it came.

Tokonoma window from Taikan-ten

The traditional tokonoma window provides exactly this. Without the window to provide this natural exit, the eye traverses the tokonoma like a wasp beneath an upturned shot glass. The viewer's eye may begin patiently, exploring the composition - but after a few passes around the display, it moves within increasing violence, buzzing from side to side and ricocheting off of the walls in search of some mode of escape.

Jan van Eyck, 1434

Jan van Eyck, 1434.
The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami

Western painters have used this principle for centuries. When painting interiors, the Dutch masters from van Eyck on commonly provide a way out: a window or a doorway, to which the eye ultimately is drawn.

Pieter de Hooch, 1661-1663

Pieter de Hooch, 1661-1663.
Mother Lacing her Bodice beside a Cradle

As we see from de Hooch's painting above, one need not have a clear view of what lies beyond for this mechanism to prove effective. The simple suggestion of a further realm is sufficient. With that departing path in place, the eye then leaves the image not by crossing the frame of the picture, but rather by metaphorically stepping out beyond the painting into the broader world that lies behind that painted interior.

Jan Vermeer, 1658

Jan Vermeer, 1658.
Soldier and a Laughing Girl

Furthermore, the exit should not be too accessible or immediate an escape. Notice how skillfully Vermeer uses the soldier's gaze and the dark form of his hat to deflect the eye upward toward the map instead of allowing it to flee out the window before it has taken in the entire scene.

Finally, this principle of the window as a way out helps us understand why we tend not to favor a tokonoma with two windows, one at each side. A pair of windows will pull in opposition to one another, splitting the gaze, breaking the visual flow, and forcing the viewer to depart the composition unsatisfied what for the one path remaining unfollowed.

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