If you have followed this blog for a while, you might remember the earlier post about Mu Qi Fa-chang and his painting “Six Persimmons”. Truth to be told, until now I had never seen a persimmon and knew the fruit only from that painting. Not many persimmon trees around here, I can assure you. So you can picture my surprise when I recently found in our food store packs with persimmons. And actually six per pack! Of course, I couldn’t resist taking a pack and do some arranging for a modern take on the Mu Qi painting. And as it often is, this kind of doing provides its own kind of insights.
Just to recap the facts about the Mu Qi painting. Assumed to be painted during the 13th century (late Song dynasty) the painting, which now is kept at the Daitokuji temple in Kyoto, is seen as one of the first pinnacles of Zen art. The work was indeed one of the first to show the characteristics we have since come to identify with Zen paintings. Lot’s of empty space around the subject and strong, seemingly spontaneous brush strokes.
Now, if you compare my photo with the painting there are marked differences. Overall, Mu Qi’s composition seems to be much more compact and balanced. One reason for this is that my persimmons lack stems. With the stems gone some vertical and diagonal components are missing. But more important even, when I tried to place the fruits I noticed that this wasn’t quite possible as in the Mu Qi. The original uses the traditional Chinese half-height perspective as if the viewer was slightly above the scene. In my photo the camera is level with the fruits. But if I had raised the camera the fruits would not have shown the front surface as in the painting. Instead more of the leave crown would have been shown. The perspective Mu Qi uses, I think, could only be replicated if the fruits were sitting on a surface that is slanting towards the viewer (but then the fruits wouldn’t sit still…).
Another effect difficult to emulate is the transparency of the outer fruits. As I now learned, persimmons get darker as they ripen. But even unripe fruits are not quite transparent… But in Mu Qi the darker center binds the composition more tightly together. The triangle formed by the darker fruits draws the viewer to the center of the scene. It has been said that the darkest fruit represents the deepest insight into the nature of reality, the point where we see things as they really are. If that is right, the composition leads us to this point of leaping from half-knowing to full realization within the boundaries of that triangle. You can test this yourself and repeatedly look at the picture. My eyes always fall first on the gap just before the darkest fruit.
Nothing of this is, sigh, in my photo… Surely, I have to practise this. For me there were two take-aways from this exercise. One: a renewed deep reverence for the compositional genius of Mu Qi. Two: an insight that it is through failure I seem to learn the most. Nothing beats trying to place some fruits on a table.