“Shibumi, sir?” Nicholai knew the word, but only as it applied to gardens or architecture, where it connoted an understated beauty. “How are you using the term, sir?”
“Oh, vaguely. And incorrectly, I suspect. A blundering attempt to describe an ineffable quality. As you know, shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is … how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.”
Nicholai’s imagination was galvanized by the concept of shibumi. No other ideal had ever touched him so. “How does one achieve this shibumi, sir?”
“One does not achieve it, one … discovers it. And only a few men of infinite refinement ever do that. Men like my friend Otake-san.”
“Meaning that one must learn a great deal to arrive at shibumi?”
“Meaning, rather, that one must pass through knowledge and arrive at simplicity.”
—From the novel Shibumi, by Trevanian (1979).
The concept, of course, has great applicablilty to visual art.