Tag Archives: Japan

The Three-Cornered World (Kusamakura) by Natsume Soseki

25 Feb

Last February I read Natsume Soseki’s book “The Thee-Cornered World” for the first time and it left a deep impression on me so I decided to read it again this month, and spread the word of its beauty.

Hashiguchi Goyo, Hot Springs Inn

The story is told in the first person. The main character is a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who set on a journey to the mountains in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, but not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The plot is simple and the story is not a dynamic one full of events and exciting adventures. Instead, Soseki fills the pages with essay-like meditations on art and nature as the narrator tries to explain to us and himself what is means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration.

Another thing, the narrator loves Percy Shelley’s poetry and is infatuated with John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia”, especially with her face expression which he think reveals a body not suffering, but finding serenity in death. The narrator puts an emphasis on the sensitivity to beauty around you, whether it’s a pale face of a beautiful woman, a shoji paper, crimson camellia petals on a surface of a dark lake, a cherry tree in bloom or the gentle rays of sun coming into the room. Contemplation gives birth to moments of inspiration, and throughout the novel the narrator composes haiku poems and dreams of painting a perfect painting; not on canvas but in his imagination because he thinks being an artist is a state of mind rather than a skill or an occupation. To put it simply, if you like the narrator and his world views, you will enjoy the novel as well. The book invites the reader to stillness and sweet contemplation of beauties around you.

The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Another translation of the book is “The Three-Cornered World”, which comes from this quote:

“I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit.”

The quote continues: “For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.”

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Here is a beautiful dialogue between the narrator and Nami, in the ninth chapter:

“Where were you, in fact? The abbot was asking about it, guessing you must have gone off for a walk again.”

“Yes, I walked down to the Mirror Pool and back.”

“I’d like to go there sometime….”

“Please do.”

“Is it a good place to paint?”

“It’s a good place to drown yourself.”

“I don’t have any intention of doing that just yet.”

“I may do it quite soon.”

This joke is uncomfortably close to the bone for mere feminine banter, and I glance quickly at her face. She looks disconcertingly determined.

“Please paint a beautiful picture of me floating there – not lying there suffering, but drifting peacefully off to the other side of the world.”

“Eh?”

“Aha, that surprised you, didn’t it? I’ve surprised you, I’ve surprised you!”

She rises smoothly to her feet. Three paces take her across to the door where she turns and beams at me. I just sit there, lost in astonishment.

***

Hashiguchi Goyo, Woman at a Hot Spring Hotel, 1920

Also interesting, in one chapter the narrator is reading a Western book, but not from the first to the last page, but dipping in here and there, not following the plot but relishing in beauty of the words, and Nami finds it strange, but insists that he reads it to her out loud. The narrator says:

It’s because I’m an artist that I don’t need to read a novel from cover to cover. On the other hand, wherever I choose to dip in is interesting for me. Talking to you is interesting too. In fact, it’s so interesting that I’d like to talk to you every day while I’m staying here. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind falling in love with you. That would make it even more interesting. But we wouldn’t need to marry, no matter how in love with you I was. A world where falling in love requires marrying is a world where novels require reading from beginning to end.

Kyoto, photo by maco-nonch.

And now the quotes because, at least for me, sometimes the quote make me eager to read the book more than the plot:

As I climb the mountain path, I ponder –

If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment’s stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.

And when its difficulties intensify, you find yourself longing to leave that world and dwell in some easier one – and then, when you understand at last that difficulties will dog you wherever you may live, this is when poetry and art are born. (…) We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.

“Sorrows may be the poet’s unavoidable dark companion, but the spirit with which he listens to the skylark’s song holds not one jot of suffering. At the sight of the mustard blossoms too, the heart simply dances with delight. Likewise with dandelions, or cherry blossoms.”

Photo found here.

“Yes, here among these mountains, in immediate contact with the phenomena of the natural world, everything I see and hear is intriguing for me.”

“In order to regain the poetic point of view on this occasion, I have only to set up before myself my own feelings, then take a step back from them and calmly, dispassionately investigate their true nature. The poet has an obligation to dissect his own corpse and reveal the symptoms of its illness to the world.”

“While we live in this world with its daily business, forced to walk the tightrope of profit and loss, true love is an empty thing, and the wealth before our eyes mere dust. The reputation we grasp at, the glory that we seize, is surely like the honey that the cunning bee will seem sweetly to brew only to leave his sting within it as he flies. What we call pleasure in fact contains all suffering because it arises from attachment. Only thanks to the existence of the poet and the painter are we able to imbibe the essence of this dualistic world, to taste the purity of its very bones and marrow. The artist feasts on mists, he sips the dew, appraising this hue and assessing that, and he does not lament the moment of death. The delight of artists lies not in attachment to objects but in taking the object into the self, becoming one with it. Once he has become the object, no space can be found on this vast earth of ours where he might stand firmly as himself. He has cast off the dust of the sullied self and became a traveller clad in tattered robes, drinking down the infinities of pure mountain winds.”

“I am floating there aimlessly (…) when from somewhere I hear the plucked notes of a shamisen. (…) But listening idly to the sound of those distant strings makes me wonderfully happy, laying here in a hot bath in a remote mountain village, my very soul adrift in the spring water on a quiet vernal evening, with the rain adding to the delight of the occasion.”

“Yet here this young man sits, beside an artist for whom the sole value of human life lies in dreaming.”

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Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Mandarin Oranges

26 Jan

Last year when I published a post with the story The Good Faith of Wei Sheng by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) many of you seemed to like it, so I decided to share another one I loved. The story I am sharing with you today, Mandarin Oranges, is less lyrical and more realistic, but it possesses a strength that culminates in the very end with a sentence that I couldn’t forget even after a year of reading the story: It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.

I accompanied the story with beautiful paintings of Victorian flower girls and poor children, which, in my view, suits the mood of the story. I am not an expert in Japanese art to find the Japanese art to follow the story.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, The Flower Girl, 1872

It was a cloudy winter evening.

I was sitting at the end of the seat in the second class car.  The train was to leave Yokosuka for Tokyo and I was waiting absentmindedly for a whistle to blow.

As is not usual,  there were no passengers except me in the car,  which had already been lit inside.

Looking out at the platform,  I didn’t see any persons who came for a send-off; only a puppy was sometimes barking sadly in the cage.

Strangely enough, such bleak scenery fit my feeling of that time.

Inexplicable fatigue and weariness were casting their shadow in my mind like the cloudy sky threatening to snow.

I kept both my hands in my overcoat pocket;  I didn’t have much strength even to take an evening newspaper out of it to read.

Meanwhile, a whistle blew to signal the departure.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington, The Pinch of Poverty, 1892

Having a slight peace of mind, with my head against the window frame, I was expecting half-heartedly that the station before my eyes would start moving backward trailingly.

But prior to it, I had hardly heard a loud noise of wooden clogs from the gate accompanied by the conductor’s abuse, when I saw a girl in her early teens open the door and come in hurriedly.  At the very moment the train swayed heavily once and moved off slowly.

Each pillar on the platform, a water-wagon for a locomotive looking as if left behind, and a porter thanking his customer for the tip —-they lingered but soon fell behind the smoke blown against the windows.

Feeling relieved at last , I opened my heavy eyelids and gave my first serious glance at the girl seated in front of me while I was lighting a cigarette.

She was a typical bumpkin with ichogaeshi-styled dry hair and chapped cheeks so flushed as to look strange.

She hang loosely a spring-green colored woolen muffler over her knees, and on them lay a package covered with furoshiki.

She held it in her frostbitten hands, in one of which she also clasped tightly a ticket for the third class car.

I disliked her vulgar looks.

I was disgusted by her dirty clothes.

And I was displeased by her senselessness of not being able to tell the second class car from the third class car.

So after I lit a cigarette, I took the newspaper out of my pocket and spread it on my knees, for one thing, to forget about her.

Vilko Šeferov, 1928

Then suddenly the light lit on the newspaper changed; it had come from outside, but now it came from the ceiling, making the types of the newspaper appear clearly before my eyes.

Needless to say, the train was entering the first of the several tunnels on the Yokosuka Line.

When I looked over the newspaper under the electric light, I found nothing but routine incidents occurring in the world, which were there to console my gloom.

Treaty of Versailles, weddings, bribery, obituary — I ran my eyes over these dreary articles almost mechanically,  under the illusion that the moment the train entered the tunnel in the opposite direction

However, I could not but be aware of the girl sitting in front of me, personifying the vulgar reality.

This train passing through the tunnel, this bumpkin girl, this evening newspaper filled with routine articles— weren’t they all symbols?   Didn’t they all symbolize obscurity, lowness and boredom of life?

Coming to feel everything was worthless, I threw away the half-read newspaper and closed my eyes as if dead.  I began to doze with my head against the window frame.

Several minutes had passed.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, Little Flower Sellers, 1887

Suddenly I felt as if I had been threatened by something and I looked around in spite of myself and found the girl, who had changed her seat from my opposite to my side, trying to open the window eagerly.

But it seemed that the heavy window would not open up against her wishes.

The chapped cheeks became all the more flushed and some sniffles accompanied with a low breathless noise reached my ears constantly.

It certainly aroused some sympathy of mine.

But it was obvious that the train was right on the point of another tunnel by seeing the mountains on both sides, where dry grass were reflected by twilight,  approaching the train window.

Nevertheless, the girl was trying to drop open the window which was closed on purpose.

I couldn’t understand what forced her to do so.

No, I could not but think she was doing out of caprice.

So, with hostility deep inside toward her, coldheartedly I was watching her struggling to open the window with those frostbitten hands, hoping that her attempt would never succeed forever.

Then the train rushed into the tunnel with an appalling noise, at which moment the  window was dropped open at last.

And the air , as dark as melted soot, came in through the square opening and , turning into suffocating thick smoke, began to fill the car.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877

Having a naturally weak throat, I tried but failed to put a handkerchief over my face in time not to be bathed with the smoke.  Consequently, I was made to cough so violently that I could hardly breathe.

But the girl seemed not to care about me and looked hard in the direction the train went,  making a long neck out of the window with her hair blown in the wind in the dark.

When I saw her in the smoke and the electric light,  it was getting brighter and brighter outside the window, from which the cold smell of soil, dry grass and water flew in; otherwise I would have scolded the strange girl without waiting for her excuse and ordered her to close the window though I had been relieved of coughs at last by that time.

Aleksander Gierymski, Jewess with Oranges, 1880-81

But having gone through the tunnel smoothly, the train was coming near the crossing on the outskirts of a poor town lying among the mountains covered with dry grass.

Near the crossing were shabby cramped houses with thatched and tiled roofs.

And in the dusk was fluttering languidly a white flag, which would be waved by a gateman.

It was when I thought the train had passed through the tunnel at last that I saw three red cheeked boys standing closely together in a line behind the fence of the crossing.

They were all as short as if they were held down by the cloudy sky.

And all of them were wearing kimono of the same color as the gloomy scenery of the outskirts town.

They had no sooner raised their hands at the same time, while looking up at the train passing, than they bent their little neck backward and gave an incomprehensible cry with all their might.

Then it happened.

William J. McCloskey (1859–1941), Wrapped Oranges, 1889

The girl,  who had leant half her body out of a window, stretched her frostbitten hand and shook it vigorously.  Then some five or six mikan, so beautifully sunny-orange colored as to make one happy, showered down on the boys who had seen the train off.

The unexpected scene took my breath away.

And I understood everything at once.

The girl, who was likely to be on the way to her new employer, threw some mikan out of her kimono pocket to reward her brothers who came all the way to the crossing to see her off.

The crossing of the outskirts town in the dusk, the three children cheering like little birds, and the bright color of mikan falling around them – all of them had gone by in a blink.

Henry Walton, The Market Girl, 1776-77

But the scene had been printed on my mind so clearly in a heartrending way.

And I realize a strange feeling of something cheerful also sprang up from there.

I raised my head confidently and gazed at the girl as if she were another person.

Before I noticed, she had sat on the seat before me again , with her chapped cheeks buried in her spring-green colored woolen muffler.

In her hand, which held a big furoshiki, she clasped tightly the ticket for the third class car.

It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.”

________________________________________________________________________________

*mikan, the fruit the girl is giving away, is of Asian origin, also translated as satsuma mandarin, satsuma orange, tangerine and cold hardy mandarin, hence the title.

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.