Art – Hasegawa Tohaku and the concept of “Ma” 間

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“Pine trees” by Hasegawa Tohaku, dated 16th c. (Azuchi-Momoyama Period), Japan
– via the Tokyo National Museum.

This is one of two six-fold panels. Painted with ink on paper, it is considered one of the jewels of Japanese ink painting.

In Japanese and Chinese art, pines symbolise winter, wisdom and longevity, since they do not loose their needles with the cold.

By drawing pines in the mist, the author sought to illustrate the Zen concept of “Ma” 間, generally translated as “negative space,” where contradictory things can connect and co-exist. In other words, “Ma” is the delicate moment of total awareness when what is and what is not merge.

Looking at the kanji may help understand it better. The kanji is made of “gate” (門) under which is the “moon” 月. Together they denote the space filled when the light of the moon shines through a gate. Because of the light (what is), one becomes conscious of the space that is void (what is not).

On the practical level, the concept of “Ma,” which I find extremely delicate and simple, is to allow the creation of moments of quietness, of deep reflection and of detachment. It is creating the potential from which harmony and tranquility may prevail.

Kenza.

* In Japan, the concept of space is more subtle and complex than in Western thought. Space is seen as a place of connection, it is not useless emptiness since it is where time and things can pass through and exist. In many ways, the same notion can be found in the Chinese Tao idea that the emptiness within a bowl is what makes it a bowl as much as its material —without the space it could not hold liquid and hence would be useless. In Japan, four kinds of spaces are generally thought of: relational space (wa), location (tokoro), space that helps create connections to produce knowledge (ba) and negative space (ma). 

Art – Van Eyck

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Detail from “Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife,” by the Master of Northern Renaissance Jan Van Eyck (Bruges, d.1441), painted in 1434.

Van Eyck, known for his illustrated manuscripts, portraits and of course the Ghent Altarpiece (dated 1432), brought life into the scenery and the people he painted like no one before him. He helped define a new trend in art where painting became the medium of grandeur or “the art of arts” as it became known, rather than tapestry or architecture.

He defied the Church (then divided between Rome and Avignon) in many ways, especially for portraying religious figures with human feelings. Yet, he was adored by the nobility (especially the Duke of Burgundy) and the common man who in the aftermath of the great plague, saw renewal and hope in his art, most particularly for his use of light.

Painting on display at the National Gallery, London.

Art – Cycladic figure

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Marble head of a figure from the Cycladic culture dated 2’700-2’500 BC.

In all probability, it is the head of a woman given that most figures of this kind were of women. Little is known of the Cycladic culture that strived during the Bronze Age in the Aegean Sea, nor of the meaning of the statues. It seems there are as many experts who say they were related to a cult, as they are who say they were not.

For us, almost 5’000 years after they were made, they are stunning for their simplicity and quiet elegance.

One may understand perhaps where contemporary sculptors such as Constantin Brâncusi, Jean Arp and even Henry Moore, may have gotten some inspiration for their clean lines and sculptures free of frills.

Figure in marble, H: 23.5 cm – via the Met, NY.

Lady with a fan

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She stood with a fan in her hand, her gaze reaching far beyond the fence.

She filled the museum room with grace and poise – a silent contrast to the visitors, all smart phone at hand rushing by, their short attention span turning stillness into boredom.

I was absorbed by her grace. I never asked myself any questions about what she may have been thinking. There was no need.

I stood there, wishing for her serenity to touch me. And as the visitors withered away, it did. I hope it touches you as well.

Kenza.

A photo I took of “Lady with a fan” by Fei Danxu (China, 1801-1850), ink on paper, hanging scroll, Qing Dynasty – on display at the Shanghai Museum. 

Calligraphy alley – Xi’an

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During my week in Xi’an, I went back several times to calligraphy alley.

It is actually a main alley with a few small side streets, ending in the Stele Forrest Beilin Museum, housing some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing.

But it is the alley with its stores filled with brushes of all sizes, kilometers of rice paper rolled up or folded, the smell of ink and the seriousness of the buyers that attracted me most. I was one of them, checking each bush for its softness and feel between my fingers. I unrolled paper and opened exercise notebooks, taking all my time while choosing a few items.

I returned to the same store a few times, making friends with the owner, love for calligraphy being our common language. She spoke no English, and I speak no Chinese. My nine year old son was equally fascinated, and the lady kindly let him try out several brushes before he settled for one.

As I walked, I could only imagine what it must have been a thousand years ago, as Xi’an was the start of the silk road and an important center of learning. A town more than 6’500 years old, it became the political and cultural center of China in the XIth c. BC and continued to be so for almost 900 years, of which 300 where under the highly sophisticated Tang Dynasty.

I imagined old Tao masters and Confucian students walking down the street looking for the perfect brush, smelling ink stones and appreciating their blackness, while exchanging arguments on whether wisdom is acquired through living or learning.

Having been an important Buddhist center as well, I also pictured monks in loose robes and small umbrellas, gently feeling the thin rice paper, and choosing the best one to copy the Sutras Xuan Zang had brought from his odyssey across India in the VIIth c., now housed in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an.

I felt most humble when I was there. This was not the site of some major battle or conquest, as so many historical places tend to be, but one of knowledge and beauty. I think anyone would have felt the same.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.

Photos I took in Xi’an and at the Stele Forest Beilin Museum – June 2018.