A browser search on the term "notan" will return many images and websites with a cut paper exercise called "Expanding the Square". It's an art activity that comes from a widely popular book by Dorr Bothwell & Marlys Mayfield, Notan: the dark-light principle of design (1968, rpt. Dover), and has become widely popular among art teachers. The Incredible Art Department, my favorite art teaching resource, has a page devoted to Notan, with many examples and lesson plans that teachers have developed. I myself have been doing it with my students for several years with my middle school students, who enjoy the kinesthetic satisfaction of cutting paper (some may be found on my teacher's blog, Mrs. P's Corner).
Introduced to American art by Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), among whose students was Georgia O'Keeffe, "notan" is said to be Japanese word for the interaction between dark and light. More than this I didn't know until I chose it as the theme for our issue and began researching. What I found was a fascinating story that involves not only the curriculum I teach, but also the history of American appreciation of Japanese art, and even—obliquely—the origin of haiku as we know and write it today.
Dow was a Massachusetts artist of modest means who had saved his earnings from giving private art lessons and gone off to study in Paris—then the art capital of the Western world. The education of artists was centered on the École des Beaux-Arts and firmly grounded in classical Greek and Roman art, the Italian Renaissance, and in the study of the human figure. You copied masterpieces, drew from casts, and were eventually admitted to life drawing classes with nude models. During the summer, though, students might fan out into the countryside to paint "nature"—meaning landscapes or scenes of rural life.
In Paris, Dow enrolled in the Académie Julian, took evening classes at the École Nationale des Arts Decoratifs and summered in Pont-Aven where he seems to have met Gauguin. When he returned to the United States in 1889, the Paris sojourn had to all appearances been a success. He'd exhibited in the prestigious Salon and had a number of paintings to sell. Still, there'd been a disconnect between the French academic curriculum and what had interested him and his fellow students. Copying and drawing "correctly" wasn't what he wanted for his own teaching practice. His search for a better approach led him to the Boston Public Library, where in a portfolio of Hokusai prints he had an aha moment. "It is now plain to me that Whistler and Pennell whom I have admired as great originals are only copying the Japanese, " he wrote. "One evening with Hokusai gave me more light on composition and decorative effect than years of study of pictures."
This newly-kindled passion for Japanese prints led him to the Museum of Fine Art, where he met the noted Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908). A Harvard graduate, Fenollosa had recently spent 12 years in Japan, where he'd gone to teach philosophy and economics in the Imperial University in Tokyo.
While in Japan he'd become highly interested in the loss of historic antiquities in the Meiji government's push to modernize. He'd made the first inventory of national treasures, had been involved with the Tokyo Fine Arts Academy and the Imperial Museum, and through artistic connections had helped to stimulate a conservative movement to preserve traditional styles (nihonga) in the face of Westernization. Decorated by the emperor, he'd returned to Boston in 1889 to become curator of the museum's fledgling department of Oriental Art.
Artist and art historian found in each other a kindred enthusiasm for Japanese design and conviction that it could be the key to reforming the way art was traditionally taught. For them, art was beauty in its own right—"visual music", as Fenollosa called it. In 1899 Dow published a book, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, that presented design as founded on three principles: line, color and notan, meaning the massing of dark and light areas in a composition. The origin of the Sino-Japanese word "notan" (濃該) is unclear. Fenollosa may have learned it from his artist acquaintances, but it's also been plausibly suggested that he may himself have coined a word by combining the characters for "dark" and "light".
In historical context, Fenollosa's and Dow's project was part of a wide craze for things Japanese on the part of European and American artists in the mid-to-late 19th century. "Japonism" could amount to little more than dressing a studio model in kimono and fan, but on a deeper level, Western artists found that Japanese pictorial conventions—their angular asymmetry, partial views and awareness of picture surface—offered a way to break out of the illusionistic space that had dominated European painting since the Renaissance. Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh all collected Japanese prints.
The irony is that at the same time, younger artists in Japan were just as avidly trying to learn everything they could about what their Western counterparts were abandoning. Some went to Paris (Kuroda Seikei, for instance, was there at the same time as Dow though they moved in different circles), but Western art could also be learned at home in Tokyo where an Italian named Fontanesi had been engaged to teach oil painting, perspective, anatomy and outdoor sketching at the Technical Fine Arts School. Among Fontanesi's students was Asai Chū, whose early works were Barbizon landscapes with scenes of peasants. In turn, Asai and his pupil Fusetsu introduced haiku poet Shiki to the new yōga style: In Masaoka Shiki: his life and works (Boston 2002), Janine Beichman describes the heated debates that took place around 1890 between Shiki and his friends about traditional Japanese stylization vs. Western style "realism"—debates that did much to shape Shiki's ideas on sketching from life (shasei) that still inform haiku today.
ParisBostonTokyo: the history of the exchange of artistic ideas in the late 19th century is fascinating. Until fairly recently most of the literature in English that you'd find would have been from the Western viewpoint--Japonism. Fortunately, for non-specialists like me, that's changing. In 1988 the Japan House Gallery in New York mounted an exhibition, "Paris in Japan," about Japanese artists in Paris. I've also been interested to read Erika Takashina's "Japan and the West in Meiji Art," a summary of a research project at Kyoto University; many of the artists are now also represented online.
But to get back to notan: Arthur Wesley Dow reached many students during his teaching career in Massachusetts and New York. His ideas transformed American art education across the country. Most important for us was Dorr Bothwell, a co-author of the 1968 Notan book. Bothwell received a Dow-inspired education from Rudolf Schaeffer at the California School of Fine Arts and went on to develop her own exercises, including the Expanded Square. As you can see, Dow's examples of elegantly balanced compositions of dark and light have been replaced with rigorous articulation of black and white that reflects Bothwell's post-Surrealist artistic style and her concern with positive/negative space.

Dow, Composition pl. X, "Notan"

Bothwell & Mayfield,
cover of the Dover reprint
It's safe to say Fenollosa and Dow would scarcely recognize what notan had become. The Asian connection is stil there, though: There's a strong whiff of yinyang in Bothwell's shape/space reversals, reminiscent of the passage on "emptiness" from the Tao Te Ching (the translation is A. Waley, as quoted in Notan):

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.

We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.

We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.

Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

Lao Tzu