At the Museum of Natural History in Paris: Van Gogh and gaufres ( 2014.2.3[Mon.])


  While on a research visit to Paris, I was renting a nice apartment in a pretty good part of town, with access to most parts of the city by metro. The Sunday after Christmas in 2012, I dragged my son onto line 12 headed for Madeleine Station to visit the Pinacotheque de Paris. On the way home, we stopped at a small café for lunch and a coffee. When they brought my espresso, I smiled to see the accompanying madeleine, a pastry very familiar to us in Kobe as well.

  While enjoying my madeleine at Madeleine, I thought about the legend of its creator, a woman, also Madeleine, who lent her name to both the cake and, later, the area in which it was first made. Or maybe it was named after L'église de la Madeleine, the shrine to Mary Magdalene where the cakes were once sold. We don’t know for sure, but it’s clear that this place and madeleines share a deep connection.

  Here, I suppose could write something about how I started reminiscing for Kobe the moment I took a bite, or play on the association with Kobe’s long history as a home to upscale patisseries, baking madeleines and, more recently, macaroons indistinguishable from the originals in their perfection. In this time when we can enjoy any cuisine, find any ingredient in local shops, and notions of ancestry and patrimony are increasingly irrelevant, I have to admit when I think of Kobe, I think of madeleines, not Kyoto’s yatsuhashi. The ‘Kansai moderne’ sensibility that characterizes the Kobe–Osaka–Kyoto region has a blend of Eastern and Western currents and compromises at its heart, and if that leads to the occasional misreading, it also sometimes gives birth to masterpieces. If you mashed together the Eiffel Tower and the Arc d’Triomphe, you’d get something very like Osaka’s Tsutenkaku Tower, which you have to admit is a mistranslation. But when you think of when it was first erected (back around the time of the Billiken craze) and how it radiated Western energy as the tallest structure in Asia, or even of how today it has come to represent the spirit of Osaka, it shines with a kind of sublime kitschiness.  I see those same cultural forces behind the origin of the tansan senbei (carbonated crackers), a local favorite at Arima Hot Springs.

  I don’t now how many times my relatives living in Rokko gave me these when I was a kid. The crackers themselves were tasty but certainly not sumptuous, and I suppose it was simple inertia that made me eat them. That’s still true today, and I guess that contributes to the sense of nostalgia. They’re made with basically the same ingredients as in karume-yaki (another Japanese pastry named after a foreign word –caramelo, Portuguese for ‘a sweet’), and its origins are the stuff of folklore. It’s important first to note that if you sandwich some cream between two tansan senbei, you get something very much like the gaufre, a famous cake sold under the Fugetsudo brand, which traces its own roots to the gaufrette, a pastry popular in Paris in the 1920s. If you squint hard enough, you can make out how the gaufre was probably supposed to represent a Japanese take on a Western icon. And from there, it’s only a colossal intuitive leap to the tansan senbei! If the gaufre represents an achievement of Tsutenkakular metamorphosis, what does that make carbonated crackers?

  On that day in Paris, we had gone to see the exhibition ‘van Gogh – Dreams of Japan and Hiroshige – The Art of the Journey,’ where works by both artists were shown side by side, very much in line with the theme of my West-östlicher digression, above. It is well known that French impressionists took inspiration from the ukiyo-e of Japan, but it’s interesting how in importing these techniques, they made the same sorts of wrong turns and misapprehensions as we see in Japan’s high-fashion cakes.

  For me, my main hope was to enjoy van Gogh in the original, but I’m ashamed to say that it was also the first time for me to see Hiroshige’s most famous works, the full series of both The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, a rare opportunity indeed, although I must say that something about the colors that left me flat. Differences in printmaking artists and techniques mean that even prints from the same run can vary wildly in quality. But I was nonetheless impressed by the dynamism of Hiroshige’s expression.

  So, did van Gogh really get Hiroshige? That’s hard to say. There’s no way he picked up on the visual puns and references hidden in each of the ‘100 views.’ Most Japanese people today would have a hard time understanding them, even if they used a key; what hope then for someone from a totally different cultural background? The thing that makes Hokusai and Hiroshige interesting is their ability to make flat prints come alive, a tradition carried on by the anime artists of today. These are some of Japan’s best-loved manga.

  At the end of the day, van Gogh’s efforts to appropriate ukiyo-e were born of misunderstanding, a creative sense of “I should try this, and maybe some of this...” But what a misunderstanding! Such efforts frequently miss, but when they hit, they can give both to unexpected new effects and art forms. I bought a catalogue at the museum store, and tried to work out just what Van Gogh had taken from Hiroshige. Looking at the images one by one, it felt a bit like doing a historical study (although I should say that for Hiroshige, collections published in Japan are a better resource). Anyway, tansan senbei sure are tasty! As are van Gogh’s Hiroshige prints. Cultural discoveries and understanding are inevitably born in confusion. Not a perverse confusion, but one that transcends cultural differences and leads to the kind of direct understanding usually associated with primal emotions like fear. If only van Gogh had a chance to taste one of those crème-filled delights (an anachronism, I know), what would he have made of it? Secretly, I can’t help but imagine he would have found it good.