Posts Tagged ‘Sesshu’

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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