Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Painting a Day: Hokusai's "Clear Day With a Southern Breeze" from Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (c.1831)

Today's painting, an all-time favorite: Hokusai's "Clear Day with a Southern Breeze" from his series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (c.1831). Hokusai, and Japanese painting (and prints) in general, profoundly influenced one of the biggest movements of European art, Impressionism. Painting in the 18th century and much of the 19th century was based in a stylized realism, with very definitive rules and formulas. But as painters started to look East they questioned how these very rules came into being, and an artist like Hokusai must have seemed inscrutable at first, since he broke every possible rule except for one: his works are so beautiful you can't look away.
In Buddhism, there is a famous saying that says, basically, "look at the moon, not the finger." This means that if someone points out the moon to you, realize that their finger is just a pointer, a guide to the moon, but not the moon itself. It's a great way to think about metaphors and art itself (which represents reality, but is not reality). Hokusai is always trying to capture the 'moon' in his work, while realizing that this is an impossible task. It's also a bit like the Dao (the way), as recorded by the Dao de jing: if you know the way, you don't know it; if you know you don't know it, you know it. Hence Hokusai's 36 views of Mt. Fuji, captured in (almost) every conceivable light, season, and context. He knows he can never capture the totality of Mt. Fuji, but is instead capturing his impression of it at a certain time of day, while in a specific mood or sentiment.
This one shows us a clear day (despite many cirrus clouds) with a "southern breeze," which is suggested by the thin, stretched-out clouds. Many people also note the "cartoonish" nature of the painting. This is NOT realism as the Impressionists would have known it. It's not a mountain, but the impression or abstraction of a mountain, just as the trees are mere impressions of trees. It's all highly stylized and graphic, rather than realistic; it makes an impression as a sheer work of art apart from the subject matter. The harmony of the white clouds and the orange-brown mountain is balanced nicely by the deep green of the trees. Yet beyond the breathtaking colors, you get a sense of immensity, of the ancient mountain rising above the earth to exult in the heavens. More than anything else, this painting seems like an act of homage: Hokusai is paying tribute to a never-ending portrait of beauty that can never be truly seen or known. Only by painting it again and again can he slowly, tentatively, come to know some small aspect of it. And as viewers, we come to know the mountain, and his work, in the same way.

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