Posts Tagged ‘James Fox’

I’ve made it pretty clear many times on this blog that I find abstraction and minimalism in art fairly challenging. Well, let’s be frank. I don’t really like it.

So, I was more than a bit taken aback recently when I watched the first programme in James Fox’s BBC series on The Art of Japanese Life broadcast on 12 June. In hushed tones that failed to conceal his extreme excitement he opened the door on a room containing a painting that had not been filmed before when not on exhibition. Once through the door he walked slowly and deliberately to the opposite wall.

The camera fell upon this picture.

Splashed Ink Landscape (source of image Wikipedia – see link below)

Initially I was baffled, but for some reason this time not repelled. I hung on his every word.

This is the Splashed Ink Landscape. Sesshu painted it in 1495 when he was in his mid 70s and though it might have taken only a few minutes to paint, it was the result of a lifetime’s experience and skill.

I’ll be honest with you, at first it doesn’t look like much, it just looks like some spatters on a page. But gradually an image, a landscape, begins to appear.

In the foreground a craggy outcrop of rock covered by trees and bushes, in the background these towering mountains that are half-hidden by mists or perhaps an incoming rain shower, but as you look at this picture longer you begin to see yet more.

So down there, that is a little wooden building, you can see the triangular roof. There is a fence around its perimeter, and that, believe it or not, is a wine tavern. We know that because the wine tavern banner is hanging out the front of it.

But there’s more even than that, because below that wine tavern you can see two near horizontal strokes, and those represent the ripples on a lake.

And on the right two people are rowing a boat across it.

You know, I find this painting absolutely breathtaking, and what is so exciting about it is the way it unfolds in front of your eyes. The way by looking at it you bring it to life. And what I admire so much about it, is how he’s achieved so much with such limited resources.

Look at the varieties of blacks, these deep dark inky blacks in the foreground, and yet in the background these blacks are so pale they’re almost white. And look at the varieties of strokes, the wide brush strokes, the narrow brush strokes, the wet, the dry, the washes, the scratches, all these different varieties of marks combined and mobilised to create this  landscape.

To my surprise, astonishment even, I was convinced. I could see it. What’s more I seemed to feel it, so strongly had this process drawn my imagination in.

So, I could completely accept what he went on to say.

The other thing I can’t get off my mind: this was made in 1495 – in 1495!

Back in Europe we had the Renaissance going on, and there were no images as audacious as this one. It would take 300 years, 400 years, for the watercolours of Turner and Cézanne, before any Western artist did anything as abstract as this. Seshu had helped create an intoxicating aesthetic, one that preferred ambiguity to clarity, absence to presence, and the hazy mysteries of nature.

When he went on to explain in a later programme the importance to Japanese art and design of ma (space), I could see how crucial the empty spaces were in this picture, how much they helped convey the wonder and mystery as well as the beauty of nature.

That Sesshu was a Buddhist monk indicates that his meditative practice as well as his skill as a painter had enabled him to achieve the magical effect of this picture.

I am in the process of going back to artists that I have skated over in the past including Mark Tobey, one of whose paintings I do resonate to and have included on this blog. Most of his work though has been too abstract for me to absorb. Perhaps I have just been too impatient. A friend of mine has kindly given me sight of his dissertation on Tobey. I began to read it some time ago but was too easily derailed by other things. I plan to revisit it.

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

Camera shots taken high over Tokyo at night and shown in a recent BBC programme on Hokusai looked so much like some of the abstract painting inspired by cityscapes, they suggested strongly that I might just have been missing something. After all Sesshu is not the first painter whose almost abstract responses to nature I have learned to love. Georgia O’Keefe is another.

I’m not sure my experiences of this kind of art will ever reconcile me to the problems posed by such poems as the The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell but I have a sense that they might help. I have just taken another look at Jarrell’s poem and have found the last three lines more evocative than before. Maybe there’s hope for me yet!

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

I want to move towards closing this post with a look at a painting by a recently discovered artist – recently discovered by me, that is. You’ve all probably heard of her before: I mean Alice Neel. Again I owe the BBC a debt. It was their documentary about her that gave me the heads up to her work. For now I’ll skate over the issues her life raises about whether it is possible to balance life and art effectively and compassionately. I may come back to that another time.

Incidentally, I found the book from which I scanned the picture only by chance. My scouring of the web at the time I saw the programme kept drawing the same blank on this book: ‘This product has been discontinued.’ Click the link now and the same dispiriting message still glares you in the face. However, I was recently in Scotland and had the chance to visit once more one of my favourite haunts – St Andrews. On the way there I was told there is a new book shop just off the High Street which was much praised by the locals. It doesn’t take much to encourage me to visit a bookshop so I popped in. Well, ‘popped’ is not quite the right word – ‘grazed around slowly’ probably captures it better. Anyway, I couldn’t believe my luck. They hold a huge stock of art books and there it was – Alice Neel: painter of modern life. My luck was in.The book contains a multitude of high quality reproductions of her art. There is one I  want to dwell on just now.

Even if she was not always compassionate in her personal dealings with others, I think in her art, at the very least, she displays amazing empathy. Take this picture of her daughter-in-law, Ginny, painted in the last months of Neel’s life. Ginny had just lost her father and Neel had just heard she was herself going to die soon. Yes, I know she is partly reading her own anguish into Ginny’s face but she is also responding to what she sees of another’s pain. Of course, I realise that there is no need for me to ignore this kind of portraiture just because I can now perhaps respond to more abstract works.

Ginny (1984) – image scanned from ‘Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life‘ edited by Jeremy Lewison


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. . . . man must strive that his reality may manifest virtues and perfections, the light whereof may shine upon everyone.

(Bahá’í Administration: page 9)

Do you think excellence at an activity is a gift or is it earned?

Sir Michael, a character played by James Fox in a recent recent episode of ‘Midsomer Murders,’ clearly thought it was a gift handed down in the genes and deranged his whole life around that creed (I won’t say more in case I spoil the plot, if such a plot can be spoiled at all). Apparently most of us believe the same or something like it, much to our disadvantage. It’s the result of natural talent, we conclude, rather than hardwork so if I haven’t already got it it’s not worth trying to acquire it.

Over the last few decades it has been slowly becoming apparent that this is nonsense. Previous posts have referred, for example, to Jeffrey Schwartz‘s hard-headed look at the issue in The Mind and the Brain. Practice may not make you perfect but it raises your capacity beyond your wildest dreams and changes your brain in the process. All you need to do is stick at it for long enough with the right attitude. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Towards of the close of his book Schwartz writes (page 371):

We have been blind to the power of the will to direct attention in ways that can alter the brain. Perhaps, as the discoveries about the power of directed mental effort systematically to alter brain structure and function attract public awareness, we will give greater weight, instead, to the role of volition.

Schwartz’s book, while written for the general reader, is not the most accessible text in the world, brilliant though it is.

When it comes to attracting public awareness to his basic thesis, there is a much better candidate. It’s called Bounce. I nearly didn’t buy Matthew Syed‘s book because I thought it would just be a rather predictable rehash of what I had already learned from sources such as Schwartz. I only got it in the end because I needed to spend at least £10 in the book shop (I’m not saying which one – they’ve already got far too many branches) to get Eat Pray Love extremely cheap.

It was definitely a smart move – buying the book I mean, not devising the special offer.

Syed pulls all the research and thinking together mostly around the subject of sport, though he does throw in other examples such as chess and music to enrich the mix.

From the point of view of this post his main points at the start of the book cut to the chase.

He quotes Anders Ericsson‘s study of violinists in which Anders attempts to determine what distinguishes the very best from all the others. The result was clear (page 12):

Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest.

(He doesn’t waste words, as you can see.) It takes at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to make an expert. He goes onto illustrate how, in any complex field whether it be firefighting, chess, violin playing or table tennis, expertise is entirely dependent upon long experience of a certain kind.

He explains what kind of practice he’s talking about (page 58):

It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake.

The fascination of his book is largely in the parts I am missing out. He gives examples from his own experience, from interviews with people that he’s met and from his reading, that bring the whole subject to life. His telling of the story of the Polgar family (pages 60-66) – Laszlo, Klara and their children – is a key and compelling illustration of his point. All their three children, from a background of zero chess expertise, became chess prodigies, and the father had predicted that they would right from the start provided he gave them the right opportunities to practice.  And they loved to practice, and practice, and practice. His eldest daughter became the first woman grandmaster ever, and his youngest daughter the youngest grandmaster, male or female, ever.

Some people think it was coincidence but I think the father proved his point. The many other examples Syed gives simply hammer more nails into the coffin of the myth of natural talent. This is a more suitable myth for the evolutionists to target than the idea of God as we will see very clearly later.

However, it isn’t enough to practice because you want to. There is more to it than that (page 72):

Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.

Schwartz’s book constantly reinforces the same conclusion about the power of deliberate and sustained attention, while at the same time emphasising that anyone with a reasonably intact brain – and that’s almost all of us, even those of us with strokes and other brain injuries – is capable of learning to focus in this way if they want to.

When I shared some of Syed’s ideas with a friend of mine, she told me about her experience with knitting – yes, she definitely said knitting:

I find that most people don’t have much of a belief in excellence being earned and they do tend to assume that ability is mostly genetic.  I don’t know where that belief comes from, but it is not in the least bit empowering and is actually wrong.  I think I sub-consciously believed it myself until recently, and then I changed my belief only because of my own direct experience.  I decided to start knitting about two years ago and at first I was actually quite bad at it, worse than some of my friends.  However, I have knitted in every spare moment I’ve had since then.  Now, I have knitted garments that are so good that people can’t believe I hand-knitted them myself.  . . . . . I am definitely not gifted.  I have just had a heck of a lot of practice over the past two years.   Also, some bits of my knitting were so difficult to get right that I unravelled and re-started it eight or ten times until I managed it, focusing very hard on it and learning an awful lot as a result.

Before he moves on to consider another aspect of practice that is of critical importance, Syed makes a point of fundamental importance that I will return to again later (page 103-104):

It is only in sport that the benefits of purposeful practice are accrued by individuals at the expense of other individuals, and never by society as a whole. But this is precisely the area in which purposeful practice is pursued with a vengeance, while it is all but neglected in the areas where we all stand to benefit. . . . The talent theory of expertise is not merely flawed in theory; it is insidious in practice, robbing individuals and institutions of the motivation to change themselves and society.

It will take another post to begin to unpack this at greater length and to show how the ideas he is conveying here extend far beyond sport, not only to finance but to spirituality as well.

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