Muqi Fachang (Muqi)
As I try to keep the length of each post to about 600 words (not that I easily would succeed), I might have to split this part about Muqi (1210-1269) in two. This is not because he would be more important than the other four painters, but because he is a kind of pivot between Southern Song painting and later Japanese zen-influenced art. Living as a Zen monk in the later part of the Southern Song dynasty he shared the fate of Ma Yuan and Xia Gui to being, after a short period of fame, first belittled and then forgotten in China. His work only survived in Japan. But there, the “Six Persimmons” are revered as a first pinnacle of Zen art and is kept at the Daitokuji temple in Kyoto.
There, I said the Z.. word again. And what I am dreading to do, I cannot longer avoid: explaining my view on Zen and art. I am dreading this not only because saying anything about Zen in a few words (or any number of them) seems quite inadequate. I am also quite aware of the risks inherent in “Westernizing” an Asian religion and philosophy, a trap into which (all too) many fellow admirers of Zen have fallen into. But overlaying one’s own cultural baggage on another culture is nothing less than intellectual colonialism; something I’d rather try to avoid.
Zen is foremost a religious practice and a way of living. I am not practitioner nor follower, so I am ill-qualified to teach anyone about it. The only thing I dare doing is to explain my (possibly false) reading of it as applied to art.
With this disclaimer in mind, I would like to highlight two aspects in Zen that act for me as a creative motor. The first is a critical view of an analytical approach to reality. Let’s take for example the statement: “This leaf is green”. Such a statement is useful in categorizing the leaf (it is different from yellow leaves) and thus helps structuring communication with others; by categorizing we get on the same track. However, leaves “reject” light in the green wavelength spectrum for the purpose of photosynthesis. Thus they reflect green light – and that is what we see. “Green” includes thus a bit of information about photosynthesis, but there is no inherent “greenness” in a leaf. Get my point? Through the way our brain and language work, we are in constant danger to confuse our brain-treatment of perceptions with reality per-se. Zen therefore says, as all our perceptions go through this brainy filter we cannot trust them to really grasp what’s out there.
Zen practise and teaching consequently aim at a direct experience of reality by turning off our brainy filter. A method to this end is silencing the activity of our brain e.g. by confusing it with paradoxes until it gives up (“kōan“), or by meditation. But there is also a hidden promise here: that it is actually possible to directly (visually) experience the world. A picture has thus the potential of a communication bypassing the brainy filter, and if you allow me the cheesy term, to communicate from heart to heart.
But there is a second aspect to this – and this is a tough one. The ultimate categories are that there is something vs there is nothing. A brush stroke vs empty paper. Can this last brainy filter been turned off and what then? Isaac Stern famously said that the important part of music is the silence between the notes. This highlights nicely the quality of rhythm and the dynamism underlying this view. The Japanese call this emptiness that can flip into something and flip back into nothing “ma“. This is what so many artists, designers and myself has spurred onto a journey to hunt for the transitions between something and nothing. Seeing empty space as counterpoint and potential. Something that is in tension with filled space. I think that is why you see so much fog, transition and emptiness in artworks inspired by Zen.
With these insights safely tucked into our belt, we can approach Muqi’s “Six Persimmons” in a new way. We can raed the painting as a meditation tool. It’s tone-grading of the fruits might mean to fix the gaze and quiet the mind. In this, the painting would have a similar function as the rock arrangements in a Zen rock-garden.
But in addition the “fading” of the fruits, the rhythm of their placement and the large empty space around could be seen as silence that morphs into notes and back into silence. That is, a melody that turns off the ultimate brainy, analytical filter.
I was highlighting the musical aspects of Xia Gui’s work earlier. And here we go again: music and painting have far more in common than I ever thought possible.
But there! I jumped far over the 600 words boundary, so off we go to part IV b next week!