Tag Archives: Japan

J. A. M. Whistler – Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl)

16 Feb

It’s impossible not to love this painting; it has a meditative, dreamy aura, wistful lady wearing a beautifully painted white dress, and delicate pink flowers, hinting at Whistler’s appreciation of Japanese art and culture.

1864-james-abbot-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-2-the-little-white-girlJames Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl), 1864

Model for this ‘little white girl’ was an Irish beauty Joanna Hiffernan, a muse, model and a lover not only to Whistler but to Gustave Courbet as well, most famously in his painting ‘Sleep.’ Whistler’s biographers wrote of her: “She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.” Here, in Symphony in White no 2, Whistler painted her leaning against the mantelpiece in their love nest; a house they shared in Lindsey Row in Chelsea. She’s holding a Japanese fan in her hand. It’s interesting to note the ring on her left hand, but they were not married. There’s something ethereal about her; dressed in white gown that touches the ground, with long hair and a sad look in her eyes; she seems melancholic and detached from everything at the same time, as if she’s not really here, but is just passing through life without touching it, not allowing the harshness of reality to taint that beautiful whiteness of her muslin dress. If you close your eyes, you can imagine her slowly and elegantly walking across the room, then standing by the fireplace, her small hand barely touching the mantelpiece, while the other gently holds a fan. She is a silent Victorian woman living on the border of dreams and reality, like Millais’ Mariana, wrapped in the loneliness of her birdcage, longing for the imagined excitement of the real life out there. Or not. Perhaps she’s so engulfed in the sweetness of her daydreams and contemplation and doesn’t even walk to live the ‘real life’. At the same time, she knows that ‘dreams always end, they don’t rise up just descend’*, and this thought is the source of the wistfulness of her gaze that Whistler has so beautifully captured.

Here we see the typical elements of Japanese culture that can be found in many 19th century paintings; pink flowers, a fan, porcelain vase. Influence of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, which were immensely popular at the time, is visible in the composition as well; you see how the picture looks like it’s cut on the ends, her wide sleeve on the left, pink azaleas at the bottom and her hand and the vase in the upper part of the painting. That’s something you don’t see in paintings of Academic Realism. Whistler is even said to have introduced Rossetti to Japanese art as a matter of fact.

Beautiful delicate pink azaleas are almost protruding into the composition, leaning their pink blossoms and delicate little leaves, as if they’re ready to listen to her sorrows and comfort her. ‘Don’t be sad, spring will soon come, and your woes will be gone‘, they seem to whisper. Joanna ignores them, her face turned away from the viewer. It’s the mirror which reveals the sadness and wistfulness of her gaze, and also the seascape that’s opposite the fireplace. She seems to be thinking:

I am weary of days and hours,

Blown buds of barren flowers,

Desires and dreams and powers,

And everything but sleep.” (Swinburne)

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the painting, besides the flowers, is her dress which is painted in soft, almost transparent brushstrokes. Its gentle, dreamy appeal is contrasted with the strict, geometrical line of the fireplace. White is the hardest colours to paint, but Whistler shows a complete mastery over it, and the painting deserves its title ‘symphony’, for it is indeed a symphony in whites. In one painting below, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, whose beauty arrives from the subtlety of colours, you’ll see that mastery of white again, and the dress seems to flow effortlessly, like a river, decorated with the flowers that also serve as an interior decoration; it’s hard to say where reality ends and dream start because the more I look at these gorgeous studies in white, the more I am drawn into this ethereal, delicate world that Whistler has created, using just his brush and colours, not magic.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist, but after coming to England in 1859, he never returned to his homeland again, but instead divided his time between London and Paris, and nurtured friendships with other artists and writers on the each side of the Channel; Gaultier, Swinburne, Manet and Courbet to name a few. Whistler is famous for promoting ‘art for art’s sake philosophy’, and enraging Ruskin who emphasised the social, moralistic role of art. He was also known for giving his paintings musical names, such as ‘Symphony’ or ‘Nocturne’, which sometimes enraged the critics, but still fascinates the lovers of his art, myself included.

This painting, with Joanna’s ghost-like reflection in the mirror, inspired Swinburne to write these verses:

Glad, but not flushed with gladness,

Since joys go by;

Sad, but not bent with sadness,

Since sorrows die;

Deep in the gleaming glass

She sees all past things pass,

And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.

The critics have drawn a parallel between this painting and Ingres’ Portrait of Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville from 1845, which also has a lady standing by the mirror. Similar meditative mood, delicate whiteness, and touch of the East, can be found in many of Whistler’s paintings, here are a few:

1862-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-1-the-white-girl-girl-is-joanne-hiffernanJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 (Note: model is Joanna again)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873 oil on canvas 77 1/8 in. x 40 1/4 in. (195.9 cm x 102.24 cm) Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1916.1.133James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873

1863-65-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-le-princesse-du-pays-de-la-porcelaineJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

My interest in these paintings arose because of my longing for Spring, so here’s a beautiful haiku poem for the season that’s upon us. Spring, I am anxiously awaiting you, please come quickly!

In these spring days,
when tranquil light encompasses
the four directions,
why do the blossoms scatter
with such uneasy hearts?” (Ki no Tomonori, c. 850-c. 904)

Japanese Prints – Cherry Blossoms and Moonshine

13 Feb

Watching the rain of soft pink petals of cherry blossoms, against the night sky and magical moonshine – must be one of the most profound occupations one could possibly indulge in.

1852-ukiyo-e-painting-from-the-tale-of-genji-chapter-20-hana-no-en-under-the-cherry-blossoms-by-artist-kunisada-1852Utagawa Kunisada, Ukiyo-e painting from The Tale of Genji, Chapter 8 ‘Hana no En’, Under the Cherry Blossoms, 1852

It’s winter in the real world, but it’s spring in this Ukiyo-e print. Spring: the sweetest time of the year – a time when nature offers its lushness and greenness to all souls sensitive towards its beauty, a time when even the dullest of people may find in their souls a newly awaken dreamy sentiments. Yellow bridge, court ladies in vibrant silks and lavishing kimonos. Flowers everywhere; in the sky, in their hair, on their fabrics. Large and white, the full moon is low on the horizon. Cherry tree protrudes in the composition, giving the false impression of haughtiness. Like a beautiful woman showing off her figure and shining pearls around her neck, this cherry tree stretches out its branches, one might think heavy from all those lush pink blossoms, but no – their petals are as light and delicate as the moonshine which caresses them, and their beauty is as pure as the first snow.

The most intense beauty hides in the upper right corner: dark night sky becomes darker, cherry blossoms turn a more vibrant pink, and then a rain of the gorgeous pink petals, observed by the moon, shining with stillness. There’s still chillness in spring nights, but perhaps there’s a soft warm wind announcing the Summer days. What gentleness – petals touching the porcelain skin and elaborate hairstyles of the ladies. One holds a fan, while the other tries to catch the blossoms in her golden basket – how very wise, for the next day they all might be gone, and the awareness of that transient beauty is what stirs the soul.

As you all know, ‘Hanami’ or the custom of watching cherry or plum blossoms is a very important thing in Japan, but what I find even more exciting is ‘yozakura’ (‘night sakura’); watching the cherry blossoms at night. Then, for the occasion, the trees are decorated with brightly coloured paper lanterns. Oh, how magical would it be to sit silently and admire the cherry blossoms at night, with someone who’d appreciate their beauty as much as I would. Then, I would speak nothing, think nothing, just allow myself to be fully immersed in that beauty, and these beautiful verses written by Matsuo Basho centuries ago, would come to my mind:

There is nothing you can

see that is not a flower; there

is nothing you can think that

is not the moon.

Utagawa Kunisada, Yozakura Cherry Blossom at Night, 1848. Oban triptych, photo found here.

Kunisada (1786-1864) was an Edo period artist whose Ukiyo-e prints reflect the culture of Japan just prior to its opening to the West. In his own time, he was more popular that Hiroshige and Hokusai. Stylistically, he follows the realistic approach of his teacher Toyokuni, and was specially interested in portraying kabuki actors (those prints are known as ‘Yakusha-e’) and making ‘Bijin-ga’ – pictures of beautiful women, usually courtesans, but occasionally girls from bourgeois households. This particular woodcut shows the scene from Murasaki’s novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, that is, from the Chapter 8 which is titled ‘The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms’ and you can read it here.

‘sleepless night —

the moon becomes

more familiar.‘(*)

Osamu Dazai: No Longer Human – Art and Ghost Pictures

10 Feb

Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human is a really fascinating book I’ve read recently and I’ve already reviewed it here. In this post we’ll take a look at the main character, Oba Yozo’s connection to art and the paintings of Western painters such as Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh.

1918-amedeo-modigliani-a-young-girlAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

Oba Yozo was interested in art and painting since primary school and wanted to go to an art school, but his father put him into college, with an intend to make a civil servant out of him. Yozo obeyed, like he always did in his life, but he couldn’t really identify himself with the role of a student, or soak himself in the ‘college spirit’, so he often cut classes and spent days at home, painting and reading – which is totally more useful for imagination and the soul than the boredom of classrooms and patronising professors at college. He also attended art classes given by a painter in Hongo, and practised sketching for hours. He said: ‘I owned a set of oil paints and brushes from the time I entered high school. I sought to model my techniques on those of the Impressionist School, but my pictures remained flat as paper cutouts, and seemed to offer no promises of ever developing into anything.’

With the help of a friend he realised the artistic truth: sometimes it’s more important to portray the truth and work from the soul, than to create perfect, lifeless pictures with a lot of skill and precision. He also says: ‘What superficiality – and what stupidity – there is in trying to depict in a pretty manner things which one has thought pretty. The masters through their subjective perceptions created beauty out of trivialities. They did not hide their interest in things which were nauseatingly ugly, but soaked themselves in the pleasure of depicting them.’ From that moment on, he began making self-portraits, which is kept a secret, and showed one only to Takeichi, and no one else. In his free time, he painted these ‘ghost pictures’, but in school he kept his style strictly conventional. Later, at college, he meets a fellow art lover and painter, Horiki, who lures him into the ‘mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought’.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, March/April 1887

Here, Yozo and his friend Takeichi are discussing the so called ‘ghost pictures’, and the name itself is so intriguing to me. ‘Ghost pictures’ – what is meant by that? It puzzles me, especially since I adore both Modigliani and van Gogh, but I never thought of their art in that way. A certain fragility, melancholy and sadness lingers through Modigliani’s portraits, that’s for sure, but now I can’t help but to notice the wraith-like quality of his women, with elongated faces and sad eyes, or his nudes in ‘coppery skin’ tones.

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. When we were children the French Impressionist School was very popular in Japan, and our first introduction to an appreciation of Western painting most often begun with such works. The paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Renoir were familiar even to students at country schools, mainly through photographic reproduction. I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

1916. Modigliani 'Female Nude'Modigliani, Female Nude, 1916

Yozo later draws for comic books and magazines, and, at the very end, ends up copying pornographic drawings which he would then secretly peddle, to earn just enough money to buy gin. Still, despite leaving his original artistic intentions behind, he mentions these ‘ghost pictures’ again:

At such times the self-portraits I painted in high school – the ones Takeichi called “ghost pictures” – naturally came to mind. My lost masterpieces. These, my only really worth-while pictures, had disappeared during one of my frequent changes of address. I afterwards painted pictures of every description, but they all fell far,  far short of those splendid works as I remembered them. I was plagued by a heavy sense of loss, as if my heart had become empty.

The undrunk glass of absinthe.

A sense of loss which was doomed to remain eternally unmitigated stealthily began to take shape. Whenever I spoke of painting, that undrunk glass of absinthe flickered before my eyes. I was agonized by the frustrating thought: if only I could show them those paintings they would believe in my artistic talents.

1888-self-portrait-with-straw-hat-van-goghVincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – The Good Faith of Wei Sheng

6 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a beautiful, lyrical short story called The Good Faith of Wei Sheng, written by ‘The Father of the Japanese short story’ – Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who, just like Osamu Dazai of whom I’ve written earlier, also committed suicide, at the age of thirty-five. I’ve accompanied the story with some equally beautiful paintings of water lilies and a Japanese bridge by Claude Monet. I can’t stop thinking whether Monet felt the same transcendental beauty in his beautiful gardens at Giverny?

1912-water-lilies-by-claude-monet-iClaude Monet, Water Lilies, 1912

Wei Sheng lingered under the bridge. He had been waiting awhile for the woman to come.

Looking up, he saw that vines had creeped halfway along the high stone bridge railing. The hems of the white garb of occasional passers-by would flash brightly into view through the railing, flapping gently in the breeze. But the woman still did not come.

Whistling softly, Wei Sheng light-heartedly looked across the sandbar beneath the bridge. The yellow mud of the sandbar extended only about four yards; beyond that was water. Between the reeds at the water’s edge were a number of round holes that must have been dwellings for crabs. A faint gurgling sound could be heard whenever a wave washed over them. But the woman stilll did not come.

Wei Sheng moved to the water’s edge, as though he was beginning to notice the passage of time, and gazed out at the quiet course of the river, where no boats were passing.

The course of the river was thickly lined with green reeds. In addition to those reeds, here and there round river willows grew luxuriently. For that reason, the surface of the river that could be seen snaking along between them did not look as wide as it actually was. The belt of clear water, however, meandered silently through the reeds, gilded with the mica-like reflection of clouds. But the woman still did not come.

1897-99-water-lilies-and-the-japanese-bridge-claude-monetClaude Monet, Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge, 1897-99

Wei Sheng walked around at the edge of the water, going here and there on the sandbar, which was no longer as wide. Twilight advanced slowly, and he listened to the stillness around him.

There had been no sign of travelers up on the bridge for a little while. He hadn’t heard any sound of boots, or any sound of hooves, or any sound of wheels from up there. He did hear the sound of the breeze, the sound of the reeds, the sound of water, and from somewhere there came the piercing cry of a heron. So thinking, he stopped where he was, and realized that the tide was coming in. The water that washed the yellow mud sparkled nearer than it had a little earlier. But the woman still didn’t come.

Arching his eybrows sharply, Wei Sheng hurriedly started walking back up the dimly lit sandbar under the bridge. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the water of the river rose up the sandbar. At the same time the smells of duckweed and water rising from the river flowed cold across his skin. When he looked up, the gaudy rays of the setting sun had disappeared from the bridge. The stone bridge railing showed black against the barely blue evening sky. But the woman still didn’t come.

1919-le-bassin-aux-nympheas-water-lily-pond-is-one-of-the-series-of-water-lilies-paintings-by-claude-monetClaude Monet, Water Lily Pond, 1919

Finally Wei Sheng stood fixed in his place.

Soaking his boots, the water of the river spread below the bridge and shown colder than steel. His knees, his belly, and before long his chest surely would be hidden by the brutal tide soon. In fact, the water continued to rise and his shins were submerged already. But the woman still didn’t come.

As he stood in the water, Wei Sheng repeatedly turned his eyes to the sky over the bridge as his sole remaining hope.

Surrounded by mists of shadowy darkness rising from the water that immersed his knees, he heard a lonely rustle of reeds and willows through the mists. Wei Sheng’s nose was grazed by a fish, perhaps a sea bass, that flashed its white belly at him. Stars, if only a few, could be seen in the sky through which the fish leapt, and the shape of the bridge railing and its vines blended with the darkness of the night. But the woman still didn’t come . . .

1912. Water Lilies by Claude Monet IIClaude Monet, Water Lilies, 1912

Late at night when the light of the moon bathed the reeds and willows and the water of the river exchanged quiet murmers with a slight breeze, Wei Sheng’s dead body was carried softly to sea from beneath the bridge. Wei Sheng’s spirit, perhaps yearning for the light of the moon high in the lonely sky, slipped out of the body and tranquilly ascended toward the faintly glowing sky, just as the smell of water and duckweed rises silently from the river. . .

With the passage of several thousands of years from that time, this spirit had experienced countless transmigrations and had to give life to a human form again. This is the spirit that dwells in me. Therefore, even though I was born in the present time, I am unable to do any meaningful work. I spend my life in desultory dreaming, day and night, waiting for an indescribable something that is bound to come. Just as Wei Sheng stood under the bridge at the end of the day, waiting forever for a lover who would never come.

Book Review: No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

2 Feb

‘Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness. Everything passes.’ – This is the first quote I’ve read from this book, and it stayed etched on my mind. I couldn’t stop myself from endlessly pondering over its meaning. And the title was intriguing as well – No Longer Human, what does that mean, I wondered. Now, after finally reading this brilliant book, I can say without exaggeration that I consider it one of my favourite books ever!!!

no-longer-human

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) wrote his second novel, a dark and disturbing work of art – No Longer Human,  in a state of frenzy, some suggested he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The book begins with an unnamed narrator finding three photos and three notebooks written by Oba Yozo, which follow his decline from a student, to an morphine addict. It tells the story of his moral, physical and emotional degradation, and downfall into the shady life of crime, suicides, prostitutes, alcohol and morphine. It’s written in the first person which gives it a psychological depth and intimate mood. Yozo tells us all his thoughts, fears and ideas – everything that the hides from the world by wearing a ‘clownish mask’ of cheerfulness and wittiness. This sentence, for me, explains Yozo’s life the best: ‘Something impure, dark, reeking of the shady character always hovers above me.‘ He feels deeply alienated from everyone around him, and his day to day existence is tormented by this intense feeling of not belonging, not being able to show others his real self, and no being able to find out, for himself, who he really is.

The story reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and Vadim in Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine, because it’s narrated in the first person and deals with similar themes. In all three of these books, the main characters are fully engulfed in their own dark thoughts, feel isolated from society and their real selves, and they cannot find anything of value, nothing to cling to in a world of strangers where it’s much easier to become corrupted than try and make something out of your life. This is exactly the kind of literature I love, with characters who are weak, flawed, isolated, and I can slip through the pages and witness their downfall because it’s always inevitable. Not everyone can find their Sonia – a gentle, selfless, angel-like creature, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, to save them.

osamu-dazaiOsamu Dazai

Another thing I found fascinating is the massive amount of Dazai’s autobiographical elements. Like Yozo, Dazai neglected his studies and took interest in Marxism, prostitutes and alcohol. Both were born in privileged families and felt guilt about it. Both attempted suicide by drowning off a beach in Kamakura with young bar hostesses. Both Yozo and Dazai survived, and both women died. Both became addicted to morphine-based painkillers. At the end, Dazai committed suicide by drowning. Yozo’s whereabouts remain unknown, although he might have done the same thing.

Those of you who are inclined to judge characters such as Yozo (but I don’t believe people like that read my blog anyway), well, I have a quote to share, something which Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote upon hearing the news of Yesenin’s suicide. He wrote: ‘In this life it is easy to die, to build life is hard.'(*) So what if Yozo was weak and succumbed to all these vices, what of that? It’s so hard to be good and create a genuinely fulfilling life. And we can never know what is the right way to live, because we have only one life.

I can’t relate to that specific ‘decaying’ aspect of Yozo’s life (alcohol and women), but I can empathise. I have not (yet) fallen into destruction like him, but that’s because I have art, it comforts me in a way nothing could, it’s my love, my opium… And then there’s poetry, and music, and flowers, and the moon… Maybe, if Yozo had found something of value in his life, things would have turned out differently. Still, I utterly identify with this quote: ‘All I feel are the assaults of apprehension and terror at the thought that I am the only one who is entirely unlike the rest. It is almost impossible for me to converse with other people. What should I talk about, how should I say it? – I Don’t know.‘ The more I think about this book and Yozo, the more I can relate to him, it’s almost frightening, but like him I am terribly untrusting and I can understand how he feels when he says that he can’t reveal his true self to others, it’s not that I cannot, I don’t want to, I relish in keeping myself to myself and letting others think I’m cold and reserved. This makes the book even more interesting in my eyes.

I highly recommend you to read this book! As for myself, I plan on reading more Japanese literature. I have not yet read a book by a Japanese author that I did not like, I like the characters, who are often introverted, alienated and misunderstood, and the whole sensibility. Yukio Mishima’s portrayal of Etsuko’s loneliness and unrequited sexual longing in Thirst for Love was particularly poignant to me, for example.

Shimeko Tanabe: young bar hostess who died, while Dazai was saved…

And now some of my favourite quotes:

I drank more that night than ever before in my life, more … more, my eyes swam with drink, and every time Tsuneko and I looked in each other’s face, we gave a pathetic little smile. Yes, just as Horiki had said, she really was a poverty stricken woman and nothing more. But this thought itself was accompanied by a welling-up of a feeling of comradeship for this fellow-suffered from poverty.

***

She lay down beside me. Towards dawn she pronounced for the first time the word “death.” She too seemed to be weary beyond endurance of the task of being a human being; and when I reflected on my dread of the world and its bothersomeness, on money, the movement, women, my studies, it seemed impossible that I could go on living. I consented easily to her proposal.

***

We threw ourselves into the sea at Kamakura that night. She untied her sash, saying, she had borrowed it from a friend at the cafe, and left it folded neatly on a rock. I removed my coat and put it on the same spot. We entered the sea together.

She died. I was saved.

***

I was taken aback. Horiki at heart did not treat me like a human being. He could only consider me as the living corpse of a would-be suicide, a person dead to shame, an idiot ghost.

***

At one point, Yozo and his friend are playing a game of antonyms, and start discussing Dostoyevski and the idea of crime:

If we knew the antonym of crime, I think we would know its true nature. God… salvation … love … light. But for God there is the antonym Satan, for salvation is perdition, for love there is hate, for light there is darkness, for good, evil. Crime and prayer? Crime and repentance? Crime and confession? Crime and … no, they’re all synonyms. What is the opposite of crime? (…) Crime and punishment. Dostoievski. These words grazed over a corner of my mind, startling me.

***

It was less the fact of Yoshiko’s defilement than the defilement of her trust in people which became so persistent a source of grief as almost to render my life insupportable. For someone like myself in whom the ability to trust others is cracked and broken that I am wretchedly timid and am forever trying to read the expression on people’s faces. Yoshiko’s immaculate trustfulness seemed clean and pure, like a waterfall among green leaves. One night sufficed to turn the waters of this pure cascade yellow and muddy. Yoshiko began from that night to fret over my every smile or frown.

***

From the first to the last page, Yozo feels detached from everyone around him, and ‘ceases to be a human being’. That sounds unbearably sad, but the more I think about it, the more I find it liberating. If you think of all disgusting things that ‘humans’ have done, the ‘inhumanities’ their rotten minds have come up with, all the wars, tortures, injustices, hypocrisies – ‘the centre of humanity is cruelty’ (Manic Street Preachers – Archives of Pain). If I take all of this into consideration, then, please disqualify me to, I don’t want to be a human being! I’d rather be a flower, a star, rose petal in the wind, a blade of grass floating on the surface of the lake, or simply a drop of rain. There’s another great line from the song ‘Mausoleum’ by the Manics, which is actually taken from the interview with J.G.Ballard: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit… and force it to look back in the mirror’.

And now I had become a madman. Even if released, I would be forever branded on the forehand with the word “madman”, or perhaps, “reject.”

Disqualified as a human being.

I had now ceased utterly to be a human being.‘ (p. 122)

***

I confess, I have shed a few tears at the end, and shivered as I read these lines:

Now I have neither happiness nor unhappiness.

Everything passes.

This is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.

Everything passes.

This year I am twenty-seven. My hair has become much greyer. Most people would take me for over forty.’

Sei Shonagon’s Pillowbook – Lyrical Meditations on Nature and Court Life

22 Aug

Sei Shonagon (c. 966-1017/1025) was a Japanese court lady who wrote poems and lyrical observations on court life. This month I read her famous ‘Pillowbook’; a collection of the previously mentioned texts and poems which she wrote purely for her own amusement before going to sleep. Some chapters, such as those discussing politics, were a bit tedious in my opinion, but others were brilliantly poetic and lyrical, often funny as well. The book was written in 990s, and it’s something so poignant in the fact that there was a lady, both witty and intelligent, often cynical, who thought it interesting to write about things happening at court, about the change of seasons, and document her views on many topics, from having a lover to travelling in carriages made of bamboo plants. And now, more than a thousand years later, I have a privilege to read a collection of texts you could rightfully call a diary. Some people even went so far as to say that Shonagon was the first blogger!

Her observations seemed so relatable, even though cultures and time periods divide her life from mine. The book really brings the spirit of the times and I like their way of life; visiting shrines, belief in reincarnation, writing haiku poems and sending elegant letters with tree twigs attached to it, contemplating in beautiful rock (later Zen) gardens, and admiring moonshine, still lakes and gentle plum trees in spring. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t mind spending one of them living like that. In today’s hectic and instant society such serenity seems unimaginable to me.

I will end my short review by saying that I thoroughly recommend the book, if you still haven’t realised that. Happy reading!

1800s Courtier sleeping, Katsushika Hokusai, 19th centuryCourtier sleeping, Katsushika Hokusai, 19th century

This is how The Pillow Book begins, with Sei Shonagon describing the beauty of four seasons:

In Spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.

In Summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!

In Autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sets close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild gees, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.

In Winter the early mornings. it is beautiful indeed when the snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.

1793. Maruyana Okyo, Edo Period, Butterflies

Maruyana Okyo, Edo Period, Butterflies, 1793

*As this is mainly an art blog, I am aware of the fact that Shonagon lived in Heian period and the painting by Hokusai is from Edo period or 19th century, so there’s a discord here. It would be the same as putting a painting of Queen Victoria and a Medieval text, but I really liked this painting by Hokusai and I felt it fits the mood of Shonagon’s book.

Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

26 Jun

Ukiyo-e is a genre of woodblock prints that flourished in the Edo period (1603-1867). Term ‘Ukiyo-e’ literally means ‘pictures of the floating world‘ as it was meant to describe the hedonistic lifestyle of the merchant class that benefited from the rapid economical growth in Edo (modern Tokyo). Merchant class, previously at the bottom of the social order, now had enough wealth to indulge in all sorts of pleasures; from kabuki theatre to services of courtesans and geishas. Courtesan culture also flourished in Edo period, and male wanderers could find a refined female company in the ‘pleasure quarter’. On the other hand, geishas are female entertainers and hostesses, skilled in different areas such as calligraphy or dance. Courtesans were describes as ‘colourful flowers’ while geisha women were called ‘willows’ because of their subtlety, strength, and grace. In addition to all this, merchant class had enough money to afford a new art or design items, depends on how you look at it. I suppose some people really appreciated the beauty of Ukiyo-e prints while others merely enjoyed having them on the wall.

Ukiyo-e prints have a wide range of subjects and styles, depending on the artist and on the time period. The pictures below are my personal favourites, though I’ve also wanted to present you the variety of these artworks and Japanese culture. Woman Bathing Under Flowers is perhaps my top-favourite. However, as a true European my mind instantly compares these works with European artworks of the time. I mean, some of these works were created in the early nineteenth century – the same years that Jane Austen’s novels were written. It’s so exciting to encounter a different era, a different culture, if not in person, than through these lavishing woodblock prints – overwhelmingly simplistic, but dynamic, colourful, scenes from the world gone by.

The great diversity that excites me, and I hope you too, can be traced through the work of the various artists – from the famous Hokusai’s waves or Hiroshige’s nocturnal landscapes to Keisai Eisen’s ‘beautiful women’, Sharaku’s kabuki actors, Torii Kiyonaga’s mystical night scenes, to my personal favourite – Utagawa Toyokuni who, as you can see, focused on everyday scenes, especially women’s activities – bathing, applying makeup, calming hair, strolling in the rain (probably worried for the hairstyle), playing with dogs or cats, dancing or showing off in front of your friends – typical activities of the modern women. It seems like time changes, but people, their worries, fears and passions usually stay the same. Imagine, Utagawa Kunisada’s beauties in the print ‘Autumn moon over Miho’ admired the very same moon we see today.

I must add that Ukiyo-e prints were hugely influential on European art, especially on the Impressionists and Postimpressionist such as Vincent van Gogh who admired some of Hokusai’s prints and also the Japanese way of living.

 

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman Bathing Under Flowers. Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman Bathing Under Flowers, Ukiyo-e woodblock print

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman in Rain with Umbrella.  Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman in Rain with Umbrella

 

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Komachi at Sekidera ca.1810, from the series Modern Girls as Seven Komachica. 1810. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Komachi at Sekidera, from the series ‘Modern Girls as Seven Komachi’

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman Holding a Cat, Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman Holding a Cat

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Kaoru of the Sugata-Ebiya, kamuro Nioi and Tomeki. Ukiyo-e, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Kaoru of the Sugata-Ebiya, Kamuro Nioi and Tomeki

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Beauty under Maple and Ginkgo Leaves, 18111811. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Beauty under Maple and Ginkgo Leaves

Youshuu Chikanobu (1838-1912), Picture of the Hell CourtesanYoushuu Chikanobu (1838-1912), Picture of the Hell Courtesan

Woman Applying Cosmetics, early 19th century, Korii KoyinagaKorii Koyinaga – Woman Applying Cosmetics, early 19th century

Woman washing her hair with an attendant, Mid 18th century, Katsukawa ShunsuiWoman washing her hair with an attendant, Mid 18th century, Katsukawa Shunsui

Two women gazing at the reflection of the moon, Early 19th century , Kubo ShunmanTwo women gazing at the reflection of the moon, Early 19th century , Kubo Shunman

Seven classes of women. Color and gold on silk.  Early 19th century, Japan, Artist - Utagawa ToyohiroSeven classes of women. Color and gold on silk. Early 19th century, Utagawa Toyohiro

A Leopard Drawn from Life- Kunimaro, 1860, Japan1860. A Leopard Drawn from Life – Kunimaro

Beauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa, JapanBeauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806)

1796-99. The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment - Utamaro1796-99 The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment – Utamaro

1797. Hairdresser from the series Twelve types of women's handicraft - Utamaro1797 Hairdresser from the series Twelve types of women’s handicraft – Utamaro

1800s Katsushika Hokusai - Courtesan asleepLate 18th/early 19th century, Katsushika Hokusai – Courtesan asleep

1767. Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow - Suzuki Harunobu1767 Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow – Suzuki Harunobu

1794. The actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei - Sharaku1794 The actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei – Sharaku

1820. Hokusai - Still Life1820 Hokusai – Still Life

1826-33. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai's most famous print, the first in the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji1826-33 The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai’s most famous print

1857 Sudden shower over Shin-Ohashi bridge and Atake – Hiroshige

1857 The Plum Garden in Kameido – Hiroshige

1830s Utagawa Kunisada - Autumn moon over Miho1830s Utagawa Kunisada – Autumn moon over Miho

1858. Hiroshige - The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series 'Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji'1858 Hiroshige – The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’

1834. Hiroshige - Full Moon over a Mountain Landscape1834 Hiroshige – Full Moon over a Mountain Landscape

1834. Hiroshige - Heavy Rain on a Pine Tree1834 Hiroshige – Heavy Rain on a Pine Tree