November 14, 2014

Hokusai and the Energy We Most Want in Our Lives

One of the most noted series of woodblock prints is by Katsushika Hokusai, the great 19th century Japanese printmaker. His 36 Views of Mount Fuji have a compelling sense of energy. In each print, a mere 10 x 15 inches, he depicts the sacred mountain, Fuji-yama, home of the gods from almost every possible point of observation. 

Hokusai sees how Mt. Fuji is changed by weather and light. He sees it in relation to city streets, the wilds of nature, and the daily activities of people: gathering clams, cleaning rice, stacking lumber.

The artist does not tire of giving his attention. And “how much attention one can give”, explains Eli Siegel in his lecture Art As Energy, “is a problem of energy.” How much attention I could give was a problem I had growing up in Springfield, Missouri. I was not like Hokusai!  Often I had a “self-centered” way of seeing and yet even as I wanted to be a sculptor, I felt nothing held my attention in a sustained way. I had no idea that the way I saw the whole world had anything to do with my lethargy. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the more value I gave to things outside myself, the more energetic and keener I would be!

“It takes energy to find energy,” said Eli Siegel, and Hokusai had that energy. Traveling across Japan with brush and paper he explored and recorded nature and the human figure in all their variety. He said:
“I have drawn things since I was six. All that I have made before the age of sixty-five is not   worth counting. At seventy-three I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. At ninety I will enter into the secret of things. At a hundred I shall certainly have reached a magnificent level; and when I am a hundred and ten, everything—every dot, every dash—will live.”
 Hokusai left the world over 10,000 woodcut prints and some 30,000 to 40,000 drawings.  

Under the Wave off Kanagawa, or The Great Wave is one of the most loved and reproduced works of art the world over because of the way it puts together force and accuracy, immense freedom and precision. Eli Siegel described it as having “neat frenzy,” and “the wild as shapely.” Like every person, I have wanted to feel swept by the meaning of things and also be orderly, in control. The Great Wave encourages this feeling.

A mighty tsunami rises from a tumultuous sea. As it crests upward, its massive curve rolling forward, it breaks into spiky fingerlets of water, then drops of foamy spray. 

In the foreground are three yellow boats with pointed bows: one carried upon the wave, another plunging through water, as the third is about to be engulfed. 

Hokusai’s dots and dashes do live as they precisely define the wave in all its power and delicacy. With economy of color—dark, middle, light blues, white, yellow and tan; and simplicity of line Hokusai sees it as exuberant force and graceful curve.  

Everything in the composition brings our eye to the actual subject—Mt Fuji—rising calmly in the distance. The great wave seems to bow its frenzied crest to the mountain as its white foam appears to become snow falling upon the white capped peak of Fuji. The smaller wave’s triangular form in the foreground, is like that of the distant mountain, moving our eye from tumultuous waves to reposeful mountain, whose delicate peak lovingly meets all time and space.

Hokusai shows us that the energy we most want in our lives is the courageous and lovingly keen attention to reality that is in art. In Art As Energy, Eli Siegel explains:
"The artist says, I must see what this is; a person not as artist says, I must use this or protect myself from this. The energy that insists on a thing’s having more meaning is deeply the true kind."

November 3, 2014

What can Van Gogh's great painting "Starry Night" teach us about ourselves?  Miriam Mondlin asks and answers a question that is so pertinent to both art and life: "Can We Be Expansive & Contained Like Van Gogh's Starry Night?"  Read her full article. 

Van Gogh's "Starry Night"