Tag Archives: Japanese art

Tsuchiya Koitsu – Teahouse at Night

11 Oct

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Teahouse at Night (Otsuya Araki Yokocho), 1935

Tsuchiya Koitsu’s art is famed for its skillful depiction of light and shade and his woodbloock print “Teahouse at Night” (sometimes also called “Teahouse Attendant”) is a wonderful example of that. The scene shows a view of the teahouse at night with two ladies dressed in kimono; one seems to be entering while the other is leaving. There is also a third figure in the scene; a shadow on the window on the upper floor which brings a touch of mystery to the artwork. Who is this mysterious woman? The way the nocturnal darkness meets the warm light of the lanterns is just stunning. The whole scene is a playful harmony of contrasts; vertical lines of doors and walls meet the horizontal lines of the floor, wooden fence and windows. There is also a dynamic play of contrasts between light and dark; the dark wooden facade and the windows full of light. These are the elements that make this scene so captivating and full of wonder. Despite there being only two, or three if you will, figures in the scene, there is a mood of fun and playfulness. This looks like the place one wants to be at, the place of tea, music and good conversation. The building of the teahouse is closely cropped and cut off on the right but we can still see a fragment of the night sky in the upper left corner. This is the interesting way in which Japanese artists frame their scenes, as if they are taking photographs.

Tsuchiya Koitsu was one of the group of the Japanese artists who brought revival to the art of the ukiyo-e prints in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The art of Koitsu and his fellow artists such as Shiro Kasamatsu, Hasui, Shotei, Yoshida and many others is prolific and full of wonderful inovations that bring to mind the glory of the original era of ukiyo-e prints. This new Renaissance period is known as “Shin Hanga” or “The New Prints”. From 1930 to his death in 1949 Koitsu made over two-hundred woodbloock prints which are considered outstanding in both quality of design, originality of composition and execution.

Uemura Shoen – Flames

21 May

“You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

Uemura Shoen, Flames, 1918

The title of Uemura Shoen’s painting, “Flames”, is somewhat in a discord with the painting’s gentle, subdued appearance.The title “Flames” inplies the flames of jealousy and the woman portrayed here is Lady Rokujo; the heroine of Murasaki Shikibu’s eleventh century novel “The Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari). The motives of leaves and delicate spider webs speak of the tranquility of nature, but the feelings rising in Lady Rokujo’s soul are all but tranquil. The lady’s pale skin hides a scarlet coloured rage, but still waters run deep and Rokujo’s feelings are deep and passionate. She is biting the strand of her long, long black hair and this gesture speaks of the tormenting state that this lady has found herself in. The pose that she is in; stylised and contorted also adds to the tense, anguished mood that she is in. The lady’s elegance and her porcelain pale skin makes her look like a doll and that is something we see often in Shoen’s paintings of women.

Shoen specialised in the genre called bijin-ga; a genre of pictures that show beautiful women, especially popular in the Ukiyo-e prints. Often times these beautiful women were prostitutes, but that is not always the case and it is certainly not the case with Shoen’s paintings such as this one. Shoen was born in 1875 and in those times it was very unusual for a woman to be a professional painter. Women who could paint well were viewed as cultured, but it was something only to be done as a hobby, behind closed doors, not something a woman could do as a career. Shoen was born two months after the death of her father and luckily she had a supportive mother who encouraged her in her artistic pursuits. Shoen was sent to Kyoto Prefectural Painting School when she was twelve years old and there she found a great tutor alled Suzuki Shonen who was the painter of Chinese-style landscapes. He gave her freedom to paint whatever she wanted, even painting human figures which was something that was allowed only in later years of training. Indeed, painting female figures was something that Shoen loved best and this painting proves just how skilled she was at portraying the psychology of the character. Shonen also gave Shoen the first kanji “sho” to use in her name. Shoen’s original birth name was Uemura Tsune.

The topic of jealousy instantly made me think of this passage from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” where the dark and brooding Mr Rochester tells this to Jane:

You never felt jealousy, did you, Miss Eyre? Of course not: I need not ask you; because you never felt love. You have both sentiments yet to experience: your soul sleeps; the shock is yet to be given which shall waken it. You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away. Floating on with closed eyes and muffled ears, you neither see the rocks bristling not far off in the bed of the flood, nor hear the breakers boil at their base. But I tell you — and you may mark my words — you will come some day to a craggy pass in the channel, where the whole of life’s stream will be broken up into whirl and tumult, foam and noise: either you will be dashed to atoms on crag points, or lifted up and borne on by some master-wave into a calmer current — as I am now.

Kasamatsu Shiro – Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain and The Ginza on a Spring Night

3 Apr

“That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.”

(L.M.Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea)

Kasamatsu Shiro, Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain, 1935

These two woodblock prints by the Japanese print maker and engraver Kasatasu Shiro (1898-1991), “Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain” and “The Ginza on a Spring Night” are very similar and contrasting at the same time. Both prints portray the scene of a spring rain and night; motives that seem to be recurring in the art of Kasamatsu Shiro, and both prints show a scene with architecture and people. Still, the moods of these prints are very different. In “Yushim Tenjin Shrine in Spring Rain” the scene of the Tenjin shrine in spring rain is seen through a greyish-blue mist. We, the viewers, are observing the scene from a porch, safely hidden under a roof while the rain is drizzling. The pigeons have also found their safe haven under that same roof. The figures in the distance are all holding umbrellas. The bare tree branches, a pigeon in its flight, the puddles of rain on the ground; little details such as these help to convey the mood of tranquility and perhaps even a touch of melancholy. Here and there we can see the warm yellow light of the lanterns. The horizontal shape of the print adds to the calm, serene mood of the scene and the visual space is nicely broken up into different parts with the wooden columns on the porch; this is a detail typical for Japanese art. In contrast, the print “The Ginza on a Spring Night” shows a scene from a bustling city of Tokyo. Shiro depicts a busy street scene and the vertical format of the print really fits the mood, in the same way the horizontal format fits the meditative mood of the previous print. Women wearing kimono and dresses, men in their suits, everyone is walking down the street on a spring night. Where are they all going, I can’t help but wonder? The blueness of the night is mingling with the yellow light of the streelamps. A thin tree with blossoming branches is stretching itself towards the sky, as if it is thirsty to soak in the silvery light of the moon. It is interesting how the passersby in the foreground are drawn more in detail while the ones in the background are drawn merely as dark shadows. These two prints both depict the motif of a spring night and rain but they are full of contrasts; spiritual versus secular (one print showing the shrine and the other a city scene), tranquility versus liveliness, nature versus city, meditation versus frivolity and fun.

Kasamatsu Shiro, The Ginza on a Spring Night (Haru no yo, Ginza), 1934

Oda Krohg: A Japanese Lantern

6 Feb

“The true joy of a moonlit night is something we no longer understand. Only the men of old, when there were no lights, could understand the true joy of a moonlit night.”
(Yasunari Kawabata, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories)

Oda Krohg (1860–1935), A Japanese Lantern (By the Oslofjord), 1886, Pastel on paper pasted on canvas

The palpable dreaminess and delicate, lyrical nocturnal ambient is what instantly captivated me about this painting. A woman in a white gown is sitting at the balcony doors and gazing out into the beautiful summer night; the distant moonlight is painting the landscape in whimsical shadows and casting a silver light that transforms the mundaneness of this view from the window into a magical scene. The woman’s face is turned away from us which gives her a mysterious vibe but also puts us in her place; we are not gazing at her, but rather we are seeing what she is seeing. Our view stretches from the lush, murmuring treetops in the foreground to the serene lake bathed in moonlight in the background. Above the woman, a Japanese lantern is hanging from the ceiling, it almost replaces the image of the moon, and its warm, yellowish light is reflected at the ornamental glass of the door.

The title, “A Japanese Lantern”, the cropping, and the motif of a lantern all hint at the Oriental inspiration behind the painting. Alternative title, “By the Oslofjord”, puts the painting in a geographic reality and places the scene near the town of Oslo. Before seeing paintings of Edvard Munch and now this gorgeous pastel by Oda Krohg, I never thought Nordic nights and fjords could have such a magical appeal. The painting, with its hushed, nocturnal and dreamy atmosphere that matches that of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, paved a way for the revival of Romantic themes in art; romance, dreams and Symbolism instead of realism. I love how the predominant tonality is blue. The purity of using just this one colour and its different tones to achieve this nocturnal effect is mesmerising. The pastel chalk technique also adds a certain softness that is fitting for the mood.

Oda Krohg was a female Norwegian painter who lived her life like a man; she disobeyed the social norms, went to pubs and cafes unchaperoned, had children out of wedlock and had affairs with many fellow Norwegian artists, but not with Munch though. She was twenty-six years old when she painted this painting and it was her painterly debut. She married the painter Christian Krohg whose painting “The Sick Child” would later influence Munch to paint the same motif of a sickly, dying child. Christian Krohg also painted this charming portrait of his wife Oda in the same year that Oda painted her “A Japanese Lantern” painting. She does look like a cheerful, independant bohemian. With that long flowing hair, vibrant red dress, hoop earrings and the red bonnet I can picture her in a 1960s Godard film, like Anna Karina. And I love her smile.

Christian Krohg, Oda Krohg as Bohemian Princess, 1886

Japonism in Oskar Kokoschka’s Fan for Alma Mahler

7 Jun

Oskar Kokoschka, Third Fan for Alma Mahler, 1913

Japonism, or the influence of Japanese art on Western art, was all the rage in the European art circles of the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Ukiyo-e prints and folding screens were the most influential. Artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and many others were captivated by the strange and vibrant beauty of Japanese artworks and decorative objects and they found all sorts of ways to be inspired by what they saw. It is very obvious then that the semicircular shape and vibrant patterns of Japanese fans were also highly popular with European artists. In the shape of the fan and in its changeable quality, it being different when it is open and when closed, they found a new inspiration to play with shapes and depictions of landscapes and other motifs. Degas of course incorporated his delightful ballerinas on the fan, Manet painted chrysanthemums, but a very striking and exciting example of a fan inspired by Japanese art comes from the brush of Oskar Kokoschka; an Austrian artist very prolific in the period just before and during the First World War in Vienna. In those times ladies still wore their fans as a fashion accesory so it was not just an artwork but also a useful object. In his series of six fans painted for his lover Alma Mahler, Kokoschka brings the art of fan painting on a whole new artistic level. The pictorial space on the fan stretches over several sections, not just one, and you can only imagine how exciting this fan would look when being slowly opened and all the figures were enliven for a moment. The central scene of the fan is the most beautiful and romantic one; it shows two lovers, Kokoschka himself and Alma, under the Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps the eruption of the vulcano Mount Vesuvius can be symbolically seen as the culmination of all his intense love, desire and yearning for the seductive and charming Alma who, very tragically, ended their relantionship and ended up marrying the architect Walter Groppius, and later even the writer Franz Werfel. The scenes on the left and right of the fan are an hommage to the couple’s trip to Italy.

Eastman Johnson and Hasui Kawase: Gathering Lilies

10 May

Eastman Johnson, Gathering Lilies, 1865

With one elegant gesture this lady in Eastman Johnson’s painting is ready to pick a lily flower. Two water lilies are already in her left hand but she desperately wants to pick the third one and, balancing on a thick moss-coated log, she shows not the slightest trace of fear. In one second she could lose her balance and fall into the murky waters of the pond and become the Victorian Ophelia. The water lily – precious and pretty – is worth the risk. Something very interesting about this painting is the perspective; it almost seems like the focalisator of the painting is a frog, like the scene of the lady picking a lily flower is seen from the frog’s point of view and this is very fitting because a frog could likely be enjoying the water and resting on a big lily flower leaf. This way, Eastman made the scene look neverending, the pond fills the space in the painting and disappearing in greenery in the background.

There is no sharp line dividing the pond from the blue sky and the figure of a woman is beautifully situated in the middle of the painting. When compared to Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies, the colours in Eastman’s painting are terribly dull and brown, but they actually match the real colour of nature better. Brown and green shades dominate the canvas with only a touch of blue where the water is reflecting the sky. That is another interesting thing, because of the perspective we don’t see the sky in the distance but we see the reflection of it in the water. The lady’s clothes perfectly match the colour scheme and she blends into the surroundings. Perhaps a white gown would be a beautiful option as well, and it would then match the whiteness of the water lilies but ah well, I wasn’t around back then to give Eastman my suggestion. It is what it is now.

Hasui Kawase, The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba, 1929

It would be fun to compare Eastman Johnson’s painting “Gathering Lilies” with Hasui Kawase’s print “The Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba” from 1929 because they both portray the similar scene; lily pond and women. As typical for Japanese art, elements in the print are simplified and stylized. The colours and shapes don’t blend here naturally and softly as they do in Eastman’s painting but instead the scene is visually divided into three spheres; green background of trees, the bridge with the ladies observing the water lilies, and the layer of water lilies in the foreground; very simple and very captivating. The leaves of the water lilies here are huge and they seem to grow and expand before our eyes, ready to take over the entire space of the print. They even conceal parts of the bridge and fill the distance as well. Here and there soft pink flowers show through and nowhere is the surface of the water visible. So interesting. Usually the water lilies scenes show the surface of the water and only here and there beautiful flowers and leaves are seen, but here they are so domineering and wild.

Japonism in Claude Monet’s “On the Boat”

27 Apr

Claude Monet, On the Boat, 1887

Japanese artists regularly used all sorts of unusual perspectives and compositions to enrich the artwork and excite the viewer. In ukiyo-e prints we can often see a figure or an object cut out in a strange way, but our eye instantly fills in the part that is missing, we are instantly engaged and we build the rest of the scene with our imagination. This artistic technique was normal in the art of Far East but was perceived as something most unusual and outrageous in European art circles. German painter Franz von Lenbach in particular expressed his intense dislike of the cut-off technique, he wrote: “The Impressionists – those choppers-off of necks and heads – despise the closed form of the human body which has been taught to us by the Old Masters.” In retrospective it is almost amusing how such a little thing would be so provocative. The train of art was moving fast, vanishing in a cloud of smoke and Franz von Lenbach was still on the train station, completely stuck in the dusty, old and boring art routines. The western art traditions favoured symmetry and harmony and the ideal placement of the object portrayed was the centre of the painting. More conventional nineteenth century painters such as Alexandre Cabanel or Adolphe William Bouguereau followed this traditional composition but the Impressionists, and the art movements that followed, were a rebellious bunch who liked to do things their way and didn’t care about anyone else’s approval or praise.

Mizuno Toshikata, 36 Beauties – Viewing Snow, 1891

One of the most popular cut-off objects in the last nineteenth century and early twentieth century art was the boat and we can find many interesting examples of this in the art of the Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot, amongst others. A beautiful example of this is Monet’s painting “On the Boat” from 1887. The dreaminess of the painting is almost unbearable, overwhelming to say the least. Gazing at those soft, airy shades of blue feels like gazing at the clouds on a lovely spring day – ethereal. The rich colouration of the water surface and the reflection of the two figures in the water is splendid. The atmosphere is beautifully conveyed. Two ladies seen sitting in the boat in the middle of the river Epte are Suzanne and Blanche, the daughters of Mrs Hoschedé.

They are dressed in white gowns but it seems the colour of the river is reflected on the dresses and vice versa. The boat is cut-off but as you can see, this composition works beautifully because we don’t need to see the whole boat for the scene to be beautiful and also, this cut-off composition may sound harsh and dynamic but it can actually work well in serene scenes such as this one. In a way it almost looks like a dreamy film scene, as if the camera is just capturing the boat slowly gliding down the river. It feels like a moment captured in time, rather than a staged scene. Bellow you can see other examples of cut-off boats which are interesting but not as dreamy; Monet used darker shades of green and blues in those paintings and the white dresses of the girls contrasts more strongly with the colour of the surrounding nature.

Also, I’ve chosen a few examples of cut-off boats in ukiyo-e prints and, as you can see from the dates, some date back to the eighteenth century and some were created even after Monet’s paintings which shows that Monet and the Impressionist bunch were not only inspired by the Japanese art of the past but that both the artists of the West and of the East were creating exciting new artworks at the same time. Scenes of two lovers in a boat and Ariko weeping are particularly lovely to me. These examples all show that an ordinary object such as a boat can be visually exciting if seen and portrayed in a new and different way; it’s all about how something is painted and now what is painted, I feel.

Claude Monet, The Pink Skiff, Boating on the Epte, 1887

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Ariko weeps as her boat drifts in the moonlight, Print 38 from A Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1886

Claude Monet, In Norway The Boat at Giverny, 1887

Okumura, Masanobu, Two Lovers in a Boat, 1742

Berthe Morisot, Summer’s Day, 1879

Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human: Cherry Blossoms in April

4 Apr

Hiroshi Yoshida, Hayase, 1933

In March I was rereading one of my favourite books ever: Osamu Dazai’s novel “No Longer Human” and this passage about cherry trees, blossoms scattered in the sea, struck me as particularly dreamy and visual so I thought I’d share it when April comes… and now is that time:

“On the shore, at a point so close to the ocean one might imagine it was there that the waves broke stood a row of over twenty fairly tall cherry trees with coal-black trunks. Every April when the new school year was about to begin these trees would display their dazzling blossoms and their moist brown leaves against the blue of the sea. Soon a snowstorm of blossoms would scatter innumerable petals into the water, flecking the surface with points of white which the waves carried back to the shore. The beach strewn with cherry blossoms served as the playground of the high school I attended. Stylized cherry blossoms flowered even on the badge of the regulation school cap and on the button of our uniforms….”

The rest of the book is much darker than this passage but I still recommend it as a great book; it’s written in the first person by Oba Yozo, a young man who finds it hard to adapt into normal society and finds it almost impossible to communicate with other people and even be himself in front of anyone. His true self is hidden and the only thing the world sees is a mask. Since the book was published in 1948 and set a few decades earlier I wanted to find an Ukiyo-e print which was more modern, not something from the early nineteenth century, and I think this one by Hiroshi Yoshida is quite lovely because it shows not only cherry blossoms but the water as well, though not the sea in this case but a river.

Van Gogh and Hiroshige: Plum Blossoms and Pink Skies

12 Mar

“Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers? And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

Hiroshige, Plum Park in Kameido, 1857

This beautiful scene of an orchard in bloom, “Plum Park in Kameido”, is probably the most famous print made by the Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857. It is the thirtieth print from the collection of 119 ukiyo-e prints “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” which were mostly done by Hiroshige and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, the rest of the prints were done by his successor Hiroshige II. Around ten thousand copies were made of each of these prints and after Japan reopened to the West in 1853 these prints travelled even to France where painters such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and many, many other painters got their hands on them and used them as inspiration. Vincent van Gogh not only took inspiration from these prints, but also made copies. In many of his letters, Vincent mentions his love for Japan and ukiyo-e prints, here is an example, from a letter to his brother Theo, 23 or 24 September 1888:

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.

But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?

And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention. (…) I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects.

Vincent van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887

Since we are now in the time of the year when the white and pink blossoms are starting to adorn the sad and bare three branches, these paintings have been on my mind. Van Gogh painted a copy of Hiroshige’s “Plum Park in Kameido” sometime in September or October 1887 whilst he was still in Paris. As you can see, Hiroshige used a very interesting perspective here and the entire plum orchard in bloom is seen through the tree branches of the plum tree in the foreground. The plum tree in the foreground is very cheekily obscuring our view, as if we are gazing at something forbidden, something mysterious on the other side of the fence. In the background, many plum trees in bloom are painted. In Van Gogh’s copy the tree tops of those plum trees in the background are especially dreamy, they look like soft, yellowish clouds, and the gradation of that yellowish-white colour to the red of the sky is quite exquisite. The grass of the orchard is a flat green surface with almost no visible brushstrokes. Van Gogh usually loved layers of colour and rough brushstrokes, but here he was inspired by the flatness of Hiroshige’s print and tried to mimic it.

Vincent van Gogh, View of Arles with Trees in Blossom (Orchard in Bloom with View of Arles), 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The Flowering Orchard, 1888

And to end, here are two more van Gogh’s paintings of orchards in a Japanese style and another excerpt from Vincent’s letter, this time to Emile Bernard, which mentions his love for Japanese art, written in Arles, on Sunday 18 March 1888:

My dear Bernard,

Having promised to write to you, I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns. (…) Perhaps there’d be a real advantage in emigrating to the south for many artists in love with sunshine and colour. The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France.

David Bowie’s Moss Garden and Ukiyo-e Ladies Playing Koto

15 Mar

Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912), Koto Player – Azuma

David Bowie’s instrumental piece “Moss Garden”, the second of the three instrumentals on side two of album “Heroes” released in 1977, is a serene, tranquil oasis of light in the desert of darkness which makes the majority of the album’s sound. Situated between the fellow two instrumentals, dark and foreboding “Sense of Doubt” and equally grim “Neuköln”, the “Moss Garden”, strange and serene, is like a ray of sun on a moody, cloudy spring day that appears for a moment and disappears quickly behind the clouds. Bowie plays the traditional Japanese string instrument koto on the track and Brian Eno plays the synthesizer. “Moss Garden” is a delightful five minutes and three seconds of lightness and meditative, ambient ethereal sounds. So, one cannot refer to “Heroes” as to a dark album, why, one eighth of the album is uplifting. And then there’s the song “Heroes” as well.

It’s been quite some time since I discovered Bowie’s Berlin era songs, but this song lingered in my memory, and I think the reason for that is the eastern sound of the koto. I mean, how many rock songs are coloured by far-east sounds like that? Listening to this instrumental piece made me think of all the Ukiyo-e prints where beautiful Japanese ladies dressed in vibrant clothes are playing koto and I found a few lovely examples which I am sharing in this post. A lot of these Japanese woodcut prints (or Ukiyo-e prints) were made by Chikanobu, an artist who worked mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, the last fruitful decades for the art of woodcuts and in his work he mostly focused on beautiful women doing everyday things. I really enjoy the elegant simplicity of the woodcut above; how the background is clear but the lady’s purple kimono stands out and the focus is solely on her and her koto; back to bare essentials. I also really love Hasegawa Settei’s portrayal of lady playing kimono.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Preparing to Play the Koto, from the series Ladies of the Tokugawa Period, 1895

Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1914), Thirty-six Selected Beauties – Playing Koto

Hasegawa Settei, A Japanese woman playing the koto, December 1878

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Playing Koto, c 1890s

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Koto Player at 11 a.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours, c 1890s

Moss gardens are a special variety of Japanese gardens, the continuous flow of unending moss coated ground lets the person slowly fall into the dreamy and meditative state, and allows the eye to wander from one variety of moss to the other, the nostrils to inhale the rich, green, primeval scent of this old and grateful plant. I imagine it rich with water after a rainy summer afternoon. “A moss garden presents the opportunity to observe differentiations of colour that have never been seen before. The tactile and optical characteristics of the moss gardens are softness, sponginess, submarine wateriness and unfathomability. They are the exact opposite of the pebble gardens with their appointed paths, boundaries and stone islands.” (Siegfried Wichmann; Japonism)

When life gets overwhelming, one can sit for hours in such a garden and easily sink into a meditative state, thoughts drifting and problems fading. In a similar way, Bowie’s move to Berlin with Iggy Pop in 1976 was his way of finding clarity, anonymity and inspiration: “I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity.“(Bowie with Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton for Uncut Magazine) After the very depressing album “Low” released earlier the same year, 1977, album “Heroes” is the first step in the path of Bowie’s search for clarity and perhaps the song “Moss Garden” is the best expression of this new found quite, introspective feeling of serenity.

Keiko Yurimoto (1906-2000), Koto Player, c 1950

Berlin in the seventies was a grey, isolated and divided city with a world-weary self-regard. The youth suffered and junkies filled the subway stations, but a lot of bohemians, artists and musicians were drawn to that bleak, alienated and experimental atmosphere and relished in what the city had to offer. As Bowie said himself: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He was just another weirdo in the city and everyone left him alone. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, by far my favourite era of Bowie’s music. Bowie said himself about the Berlin Trilogy: “My complete being is within those three albums.” (Uncut magazine) Enough said. I don’t really understand or share the wild enthusiasm for Bowie’s glam rock Ziggy Stardust era, I mean those are some great songs, but the Berlin era is the real thing, it sounds as if the mood of the times and the city with its bleakness and political division is woven into the music, to me it sounds like Berlin breathing and living.