japonisme: the birth of clouds

29 July 2008

the birth of clouds


One’s grand flights,
one’s Sunday baths,
One’s tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur.
So bluish clouds
Occurred above the empty house and the leaves
Of the rhododendrons
rattled their gold,
As if someone lived there.
Such floods of white
Came bursting from the clouds. So the wind
Threw its contorted strength around the sky.

Could you have said the bluejay suddenly
Would swoop to earth? It is a wheel, the rays
Around the sun. The wheel survives the myths.
The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods.
To think of a dove with an eye of grenadine
And pines that are comets, so it occurs,
And a little island full of geese and stars:
It may be that the ignorant man, alone,
Has any chance to mate his life with life
That is the sensual, pearly spouse, the life
That is fluent in even the wintriest bronze.

Wallace Stevens

“The Sense of the Sleight-of-hand Man” from Collected Poems.
Copyright 1923, 1951, 1954 by Wallace Stevens.
Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf,
a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: Poetry (July 1939).

what a strange day.

at long last i noticed that japanese prints, in addition to only very rarely featuring shadows or reflections, as we've discussed before here and here and here, only rarely have clouds!, certainly never, until the shin hanga artists gave them birth, as sunset, billowing, nor multi-colored.

when clouds did appear, they were almost exclusively used to augment a painting of a mountain, an evidence of heights. the mountain were subject, and the clouds servants. certainly no images of clouds for the sake of the clouds, as one might often see waves for the sake of water.

so i found myself wondering: if shadows and reflections were not included because of their ephemeral nature, as we've read in several places now, then is perhaps the same true of clouds?

i could find nothing online nor in my books (what ever happened to indexing???!), so i decided to call "the experts." i tried tracing down curators of japanese prints at various museums, but when i found only dead ends, i started phoning dealers, some of whom are listed in the sidebar here, and essayists i know from online. and to a man (yes, deliberate usage) they said the same thing:

"its not true that there are few shadows or reflections in japanese prints!" "but but," i say, "what about the idea about excluding them because they're too ephemeral?" "where do you get these ideas?" (annoyed? angry?) "and then when shin hanga came along....," i struggled, clinging to straws. the final guy had the nerve to tell me i really needed to look at more than a basic ukiyo-e collection. had no idea whatsoever of what's online now,
not to mention on my bookshelves.

my index-less books, though, again were no help. which is why the gods invented the internet:

"Internal Light

"While van Gogh never specifically referred to optics, his remark that the Japanese "take reflections for granted" illustrates he was aware of the issue. The Sunflowers, Bridge at Arles, and the Harvest at La Crau, and the other images that painted that year all have something in common with each other and with the Japanese print. They convey a visual rather than an optical effect.

"What is the difference between them? As we saw, Van Gogh eliminated clair-obscure from his painting. Clair-obscure, of course, is the result of light, or, more specifically, light external to the picture. When he banned shadows from his paintings, and used flat, "artificial" colors, he also eliminated external light from the picture. The Sunflowers, just like the shadowless Japanese print, has neither a light source nor shadows. The light in the painting is "internal." By using color as an independent reality -- independent of optical perception -- it followed that the painting assumed an independent reality. The painting is no longer an optical facsimili of the visual world, it was a reality in its own right.

"The idea to treat a painting as a reality in its own right, of course, became the hallmark of the Modernist Revolution. The realization that a picture, before it is anything else, is an independent reality – a two-dimensional artifact – is still topical. Not only painting but contemporary electronic media are first and foremost two-dimensional, artificial media that are visually more expressive when treated as such. If contemporary Japanese imagery seems to have an unusually clarity, the reason is no doubt that the eye of the Japanese artists was never blurred, as it were, by the filter op naturalism. Esthetically speaking, Japan's traditional culture already possessed some eminently modern characteristics." 1

"Monet's early paintings show the influence of the flat planes of bold colour, asymmetric compositions, and telescoping of foreground and distant views with no middle distancefeatures characteristic of 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints.... Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-58) is characterised by its unusual viewpoints. Evening View of Saruwaka Street (1856) in the Kabuki theatre district of the city, with its European linear perspective and single vanishing point, is the most overtly realist view in the series. Its most unusual feature is Hiroshige's use of shadows, rarely seen in Japanese art, that produce an eerie quality." -- Colin Martin

"artists who worked the aforementioned style circa 1860, shows the integration of western stylistic elements, such as shadows and perspective, juxtaposed to the typical elements of the ukiyo-e." 2

so you tell me. what are these guys talking about?
like i said, the weirdest day!

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Blogger Roxana said...

you know, I have been thinking also about clouds a lot because I was somehow tempted to take many photos of them on my trip. and I agree, not only traditional japanese culture has many modern aspects, but also postmodern ones (architecture is perhaps the easiest example).
but oh, I have so much to catch up with... your wonderful posts, as ever...

31 July, 2008 14:35  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

i'll have to come see your clouds, but it's not surprising. this can be one of the best times of year for clouds, at least here, anyway.

it's true--when i'm looking at the oldest of the prints, they look to me the most "modern."

31 July, 2008 17:54  
Blogger Neil said...

This is very curious (not being fobbed off by "experts", that's just par for the course). My late friend and mentor, the Japanese poet Kijima Hajime, told me that the deepest value of Japanese aesthetics is the idea of perishability. Cherry blossom is beautiful because it only lasts a short while. So you would expect Japanese visual art to especially cherish ephemeral things like reflections, shadows, clouds. I can't come up with any convincing theory as to why this is not so. Perhaps it is because the image is already internalised, itself a shadow cast upon the artist's mind.

27 August, 2008 09:30  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

argh--i wrote a long response and it disappeared... i'll try again--

i guess i've been priviledged to not deal with many experts...

what a thoughtful comment; it's buddhist aesthetics, i think. i think of the tibetan monks painting with sand.

and yes-- it's odd, isn't it? i'm not sure of your last idea, though it does quite nicely to reveal the poet. and yes, i'd say that impermanence is the mainstay of haiku.

and re your earlier conciliatory comment. thanks. your thought was simple, and correct! but you don't know the context. this has been going on since she started blogging. a few days, a couple weeks, after i'd post something, she would use the same images, sometimes downloaded from my blog, as i had, and even sometimes make the same points (though obviously we come at information differently).

this happened over thirty times before i kind of blew up. she removed some images, credited one, but never responded to me.

so yes, i'm very sensitive about this; if you have any suggestions i'd love to hear.

i see her visit my blog and spend hours following every link, etc. yet i am never credited for sites when she reports she "discovered" them.

i don't know, but i believe that that is not how blogging is supposed to be. most people bend over backwards to credit (via) discoveries from other people's blogs.

i know i had said more, but perhaps this is enough.

28 August, 2008 10:55  
Blogger Roxana said...

oh lotus, is this problem still going on? I meant to ask you this earlier but I forget. I am so sorry to hear that. how sad. especially on french blogs I've seen many people complaining about this and eventually leaving the blog world.

28 August, 2008 11:26  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh... i forgot that someone else would likely be reading this.

yes. i just went back and counted; she's used about 60 images that occurred on my blog before they appeared on hers.

in fact, i just went and posted all those images on my flickr page (that image and the next one).

my count is not exact. i know she posted more that when i commented she removed them, so those don't appear here except for the pond photo.

also there were quite a number that i knew were in my 'collection' but couldn't remember for sure if i'd posted it or not.

and i'm also not saying that she stole these off my blog. once, yes, but not usually, i don't think, not exactly anyway. she'd see it on my blog, google it, find it for herself, and then post it. this many times just is no coincidence.

and not once have i been credited, which she now does for everything else. maybe she thinks that if she finds the images for herself, she doesn't have to give me any credit. she is wrong.

many of these images took days of detective work to discover/uncover. her finding something on my blog and then doing a search for it and then featuring it is her riding on the back of my research, and calling it her own.

about the works, she usually comments in entirely different ways than i do (except that she just printed a poem i'd used). but this still just feels so wrong.

28 August, 2008 23:15  

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