Scanning a set of Japanese woodcuts inherited from my grandfather led me to reflect on the parallels and differences between traditional images and those captured in photographs, when all were created or re-created after the 1923 Earthquake in Japan.Read More
When I was looking a the lovely collection of Hokusai's small and intense drawings in the Museum at Noyers sur Serein, I kept thinking about his enthusiastic approach to drawing. A brief quote of his about drawing, "Je tracerai une ligne et ce sera la vie", seems such a lofty goal to which to aspire as a draughtsman or woman. It stopped me in my tracks, because it implies such a deep, wide approach to making marks and creating a drawing. The quote in fact is part of a much larger and famous statement Hokusai made about drawing. Hokusai Katsushika, the long-lived and richly productive Japanese artist whose most famous series of woodcuts is probably the Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, lived many iterations of an artist's life from his birth about 1760 to 1849. He drew obsessively.Read More
Do you ever experience a wonderful moment when you see something in an exhibition, it suddenly resonates and explains some connection, or gives an unexpected insight into something else? I love those moments. I had a few such instances during my exhibition "orgy" in London recently. The first one came as I was marvelling at Goya's drawings in the superb "Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album" at The Courtauld Gallery. This exhibition was the first reconstruction of the dispersed 23 drawings from Francisco Goya's so-called Album D, "Witches and Old Women, produced during the wonderfully productive last decade of his life, together with other related drawings and prints.
The exhibition was riveting in every way - Goya's economy of drawing, his powers of depicting human emotions in their most raw and dramatic forms, his mordant commentaries on human foibles, all so simply done on small sheets of paper, in shades of ink - oh heavens! The scholarly work done that permits the reconstruction of this album, in a coherent and likely order of drawings, was also most fascinating and impressive.
Then, in the works accompanying the 23 drawings, there was a brush and brown ink drawing from Album B, Estas Brujas lo diran (Those Witches will tell).
I was so astonished. The line from Goya ran straight and true to Egon Schiele's Self Portraits. Goya's drawing is a haunting image of a naked old witch devouring snakes. Egon Schiele's Self-Portraits tell of equally disturbing solitary states of mind.
Both artists are fluid in their lines, their vigorous treatment of wet and dry passages of drawing media. Did Schiele know of Goya's drawing in the Prado? Or was it just happenstance, the result of two gifted draughtsmen's states of mind?
Another "aha" moment for me that stands out in my memory was when I was looking at one of several unusual Claude Monet paintings in "Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market" at the National Gallery. In the gallery showing works by Monet that Durand-Ruel had exhibited in a pioneering monographic show in 1883, , there was an arresting painting of two apple tarts or galettes on wicker platters, Les Galettes, painted in 1882 and in a private collection today.
Its vigour and brio of treatment, its golds and yellows and close-cropped composition all take one straight to Vincent Van Gogh and his sunflowers or even a study of humble fishes, or bloaters. Did he see Monet's study of the Galettes - he most probably did, as he produced the first studies of cut sunflower heads some five years later.
The third moment of fascination for me was in the same Impressionist exhibition, again a Monet painting done in 1875, The Coal Carriers. Monet had seen workers unloading coal for the Clichy gasworks from the train from Argenteuil to Paris, and painted this work partly from memory.
The rhythmic placement of the men on the gangplanks, the silhouettes and dark colours somehow reminded me of many of the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, their rhythms and cropped views. Monet was an avid admirer of the new wave of Japanese prints coming in to Paris at that time.
I love these moments when you can link up artists, influences and inspirations. They validate one's own endeavours as an artist as you study and view other artists' works, not to copy, but to use as pathways to grow and spread wings.
A little while ago, I read on a friend's Facebook page of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold. I thought it was truly fascinating as a concept, and also as a metaphor.
According to the Wikipedia entry for Kintsugi, this skill of making a new and beautiful object out of a broken and probably worthless and useless vessel came about because the late 15th century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimaga sent a damaged Chinese tea vessel back to China to be repaired. The resultant repairs, with ugly metal staples, were so shocking that the Japanese began to seek better ways to repair broken ceramics. Firing lacquer resin sprinkled with gold dust as infill, Japanese created this new art form of kintsugi, an art that became so popular that purportedly, people deliberately broke important ceramics simply to enhance them with Kintsugi. Apparently silver was also sometimes used in the lacquer resins.
There is a growing interest in this art form, which allows vessels to take on a fresh and enhanced life, complementing originally refined work or adding new and more modern dimensions to classical vessels. Ironically in our parlous economic times, when repairs and renewals have again often become the order of the day,
kintsugi seems to be very relevant as a philosophy and example of ways of repairing and recycling objects. I also feel that kintsugi is a wonderful metaphor for dealing with daily life. If disaster or adversity strikes, how can each of us use the equivalent of gold dust to repair the cracks in life, at least to some degree, and create something new and viable, if not beautiful, out of what has happened. In other words, how can we turn a negative into a transformed but luminous positive?
I have always been enchanted with netsuke, those tiny and often exquistely carved toggles on Japanese kimono sashes. I learned about them from an early age, because of my family´s connections with Japan. Later, in the major European and American museums which have netsuke collections, I spent happy hours peering and delighting, but mourned the fact that none of them could ever be touched. They are essentially designed for touch, fitting so perfectly into the hand.
I was thus so delighted to learn, through the Christian Science Monitor´s book review page, of a book about a netsuke collection. Entitled ¨The Hare with Amber Eyes¨, by Edmund de Waal, it was published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2010. It is the story of the acquisition of this collection of netsuke, and uses the netsuke as the thread to trace onwards the history both of these works of art and their owners down the generations to today, when Edmund de Waal himself is their safekeeper.
The diversity, intricacy and beauty of these highly tactile small objects, linked to a fascinating family history, make for a remarkable book, layered with so many nuances that everything enriches. You learn of the original creator of some of these small netsuke, you learn of the Japan that came later (after World War II), you learn of the heady times of japonisme in Paris in the second half of the 19th century and accompanying rise of Impressionism... Later came Vienna, both opulent and then devastating as 1938 presaged the end of that world for Edmund de Waal´s family. Meanwhile, the netsuke survived - small animals, erotic scenes, old people, any manner of imaginative subjects.
In short, this is a book of magic, well worth reading for many reasons.
The stirring of spring, with new growth and blossoms, energises most people. We emerge from shorter days, colder weather and general winter constrictions into the bright, clear light of spring. As days lengthen and the weather grows warmer, everyone starts to think further afield, of more outside activities, more travel, and more plein air art if you are an artist. Endless ideas of where to go to paint come back with insistence, of what to paint or draw, of how to celebrate the world around one.
These siren calls of spring return each year as a renewal of energies for me as an artist. By the end of the winter period, I find myself often flagging, somewhat lacking excitement about subject matter for art. Although the same wonderful flowers and scenes return each spring, they inspire me to draw or paint them, leading to debates about how to depict them in a fresh fashion. Flowers, especially, are my delight. Watercolours and silverpoint both lend themselves to such subjects. The big, bold Azalea indica or Southern Azaleas, for instance, are wonderfully sculptural, their flowers dominating the spring landscapes for a brief and glorious period. I find the subtleties in colour endlessly interesting in the different flowers - Nature is masterful in colour-mixing. It is therefore a huge challenge to be faithful - if one wants to go that route - to these blooms.
I realised, years ago, that I owe my mother a big debt of gratitude for any accuracy I may have in colour assessment. As a very young child, barely able to walk, I used to go with her to the brilliantly radiant fields of annual flowers in bloom that we grew for seed on our farm in East Africa. To keep each strain of flower pure and with correct growth, any plant that was of poor quality or with blooms different from the desired type had to be pulled up before it could set seed. I soon became very accurate in detecting variations in flower colour, and I think I retained that eye in later years. I do remember, too, the countless buckets of beautiful, ebullient flowers that we would take back to the house to enjoy because we hated just to pull up a plant and let it die in the hot tropical sun.
It was thus natural, I suppose, that in my art, I return again and again to the sheer joy of flowers when they start blooming in spring. Not only are they lovely in themselves, but to me, they signify much that is wondrous in nature. They offer solace, serenity, hope and energy. No wonder the Japanese celebrate hanami or " blossom viewing" in festivals, of which the most famous are the Cherry Blossom Festivals all over Japan each spring. There is a palpable sense of delight and awe as the Japanese walk beneath these exquisite blossoms and pay tribute to the beauty of nature in all its brief glory.
The same urgent delight and excitement fills me as spring brings its bounty of flowers to the Georgia coast. It is time to start painting!
Reading an article in this month's Art + Auction about "Artists - Back to the Future" about a recently-noted trend of artists and their collectors returning to simpler, more personally-executed and handcrafted creations, I was struck by the statement: " Just because there is a simplicity in means does not mean the process or results will be simple. It's this question of how do we get back to basics by going a very, very long distance. It's a balance between immediacy and complexity" (Massimiliano Gioni, curator of the New Museum, New York).
I started thinking about how I personally would define basics and the balance between immediacy and complexity. I realised that for me, the answer was very simple - I only have to look at Japanese or Chinese art of past centuries, woodcuts or brush paintings in particular. Perhaps I should initially admit to a predisposition to Japanese art: I grew up with Japanese woodcuts on the walls of my home in East Africa. They were part of one set of a huge series of woodcuts that were commissioned after the 1923 earthquake by foreigners living in Yokohama. They were copied from traditional woodcut images, and the objective of this wide-ranging commission was to help the artists get back on their feet after the devastating earthquake and fire. The set with which I lived was very varied but of great beauty and, of course, of especial meaning for me since my grandfather had been one of the people commissioning the Japanese artists.
That said, I have later learned that the essence of simplicity in art does indeed require enormous skill and sophistication of mind and hand. I find that some of the hand scrolls, paintings and screens of the Momoyama and Edo periods in Japanese art (1573-1615 and 1615-1868 respectively) are the essence of aesthetic simplicity and oh so utterly beautiful. Many years ago, there was a truly wonderful exhibition and Harry Abrams catalogue publication, "Birds, Beasts, Blossoms and Bugs. The Nature of Japan". I frequently dip back into this publication because I find it of enormous inspiration and nurture, reminding me, particularly for silverpoint drawing, that as long as I really, really know the subject matter I am drawing, less is really, definitely more.
An example of such basic mastery is, for instance (and very a-propos with our autumnal migrating flocks of crows streaming noisily past our windows), a series of three ink paintings with wash on paper of crows, "Snow, Moon and Flower". One, " Crow in flight before the Moon", by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), is just a deftly detailed crow silhouetted in flight with the moon half delineated in white behind him - so minimalist it is breath-taking. And one has to remember this is a brush painting in ink - no room for hesitations, erasures, or even running out of ink at the wrong moment. Certainly one definition of "immediacy". Another of these paintings is "Crow on a Plum Branch" by Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811): the bird perches on the branch in simple, believable reality, yet he is pared down to only the essential detail. The plum branch is reduced to a shorthand suggestion which, nonetheless, is entirely complete in its depiction.
Another wonderful six-fold lacquer screen in the same show was of crows in flocks and gatherings of raucous intensity, just their silhouettes against the gold leaf on paper. It was executed by an unknown artist in the Edo period of the early 17th century, but done by someone who had studied this emblematic bird intensely, in all its attitudes and stances - at a time when there was no photography to freeze flight or movement. It is yet another wonderful example of back to basics – knowing your subject matter thoroughly, having a mastery of your technique and compositional intentions, and just following the age-old tradition of an artist using hand and eye to create images that convey messages of beauty, angst, joy, whatever.
I recently reread the quote, "There is no beauty without shadows", from Junichiro Tanizaki's 1933 slender book, In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki was, in part, contrasting the Western and Japanese concepts of beauty, amongst other subjects. Shadows for him represented the obliqueness of nature-based arts, weathered naturalness, the play of light on moss, a single candle light bringing alive black lacquer flecked with gold or silver - in other words, the subtle, understated traditional versions of beauty so esteemed in former times in Japan.
His celebration of transient beauty found in shadows made me remember all the Japanese woodcuts with which I grew up. My grandparents lost everything in the 1923 earthquake and fire in Yokohama, Japan. My grandfather stayed on for two years afterwards to help in the city's reconstruction. In order to help the devastated Japanese artist community, he and other Western businessmen clubbed together to commission a series of woodcut prints, based on traditional Ukiyo-E (pictures of the floating world), from a group of artists. A set of prints came to East Africa with my grandfather and graced the wall of the home in which I lived in Tanzania. In these woodcuts, the shadows are subtle, elusive and allusive. From this art, I learned that shadows are really far more revealing than light.
As an artist myself, I love the abstract underpinnings of a drawing or painting created by the play of shadows. It is like magic: you try to capture the fleeting shadows on a flower, a tree, a landscape, and suddenly, from this seemingly inchoate medley of darks, you have a comprehensible image. The gradations of shadow are also endlessly revealing, describing the object in space. Within those shadows too, are so many colours, local, reflected, warm, cool - you can look and look and always learn more. Next time you are glorying in a sunny day, look at the shadows and marvel. Tanizaki was right to say, "There is no beauty without shadows."