Chinese Art

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Hats off to the British Museum for combining fine photography with clear writing to explain ‘Chinese Art in Detail‘ to a beginner. That’s surely what museums are for – to blow away any cobwebs and bring their collections to life.

I learn that the hierarchy of Chinese art places calligraphy and painting at the top, closely followed by jades and bronzes – as objects of scholarly reverence and contemplation – all sitting above the decorative arts: lacquer, porcelain and silk. Sculpture was reserved for graves, temples and shrines.

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A five toed dragon reveals an imperial purpose (a toe was chipped off lacquer work if it left the emperor’s palaces) while scholars practised the ‘three excellences’ of painting, poetry and calligraphy (with incredibly intricate jade brush pots) producing mystical landscapes designed to express their cultivation.

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But most remarkable is the scale and organisation of Chinese arts and crafts. Genuine mass production dates back to well before the Han Dynasty (208 BC to 220 AD) with multiple stages, many distinct craftsmen and multiple inspectors producing the highest quality lacquer and porcelain in great quantities.

Only China knew how to produce silk or fire fine cobalt blue porcelain for long periods of history. And China’s vast scale of production ensured Chinese design served and responded to the insatiable demand of the silk routes, the near East and Europe for many centuries.

Cranes, peaches, fish, all symbolise long life and prosperity. And China’s arts and crafts often secured them for its many imperial dynasties. Bronze, jade, lacquer, porcelain, silk, scrolls, statues, woodblock prints and more – there may be no oil paintings, but the details and workmanship are amazing.

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Well done to two UK public institutions of culture – a small seaside library and the unmatched British Museum – for bringing them to life from centuries past to the present day. China is as much a part of our collective past as our present and future – and this book shows its intricate art is worth a closer look.

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Street Art

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I never knew there was so much to it… Street Art is well worth a second look. Not least since a lot of it tricks the eye – through largeness, smallness or seeming banality. It’s clever stuff.

On my last trip to the library – on an impulse – I borrowed “The Mammoth Book of Street Art” by JAKe – pages and pages of photos of street art from London, Paris, New York and more.

From spray paint to stencils, posters (aka wheatpasting) to tiny figures and installations, Street Artists are constantly playing with perspective, graphics, text and figures in fascinating, fun and challenging ways.

And it’s been going on for years, under our very noses where we live. We have a stencilled rose on the wall next to our house and ‘guerrilla gardeners’ transforming railway embankments and street trees all around us with flowers and planting.

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Once you start looking, it’s everywhere. There’s a long nosed Pinocchio on a stairwell in a forbidding estate I cycle through every morning and I used to love the ‘here’ ‘now’ on a big local housing block until it got graffitied to oblivion.

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Street Art, done right, doesn’t deface – it makes you think and it makes you smile.

Here are some of JAKe’s choices I liked best:

Classic simplicity from Stik:

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And from Dave the Chimp:

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The king of stencils Bansky:

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Poster art from Faile from the USA:

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Playful pixels from Kello:

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Miniature tenements (as also above) from Evol:

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And tiny people from Slinkachu:

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Malevich

I knew he was deep, and suspected he was dark – but another find in the library shows he painted like a man possessed through some extraordinary times. Kazemir Malevich (1878-1935) the great Russian artist went from here:

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To here:

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Via here:

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And here:

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Before changing art forever here:

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And ending persecuted but proud here:

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From impressionism, through cubism, to futurism and his own creation ‘suprematism’. Malevich created the ultimate abstraction in the ‘black square’, but ended his years under Stalin only being able to hint with a coy hand gesture at the ideas he created – that true art takes nothing whatsoever from nature and is pure ‘form’.

Modern art gets a mixed reception. But I’m staggered at what Malevich produced in a single lifetime. He is a dozen artists in one – and lived a life which spans, encapsulates and created a true revolution.

Waves

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I waved goodbye to ‘Japanese Prints‘ at the library today. Here it sits among the ‘recently returned’ next to someone else’s thriller and two DIY oil painting books.

Japanese wood block prints, I learnt, were the product of art, craft, populism, censorship and Japan’s desire for isolation from the rest of the world.

Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ is perhaps the most famous of all Japanese wood prints and belongs to the groundbreaking series ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’. Most Japanese prints were of famous actors, warriors or courtesans. Landscapes were few and far between, until this series.

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But what is also unusual about this print, is it draws on the industrial prowess of 19th century Germany. It was the first Japanese series to exploit the new chemical ‘Berlin blue’ pigment (also known as Prussian blue) which had recently become available from China. It gave Hokusai a strong but fine blue for both sky and water unlike the sticky splodgy ‘Indigo blue’ and did not fade like the other more watery traditional blue pigments.

On the other side of the world, German chemists enabled Japanese artists and printers to create many thousands of fine prints. These then found their way back to France and inspired Monet, Manet and the Impressionists, as well as the ‘new wave’ Art Nouveau posters of Toulouse Lautrec, which adorned and still define Paris.

It’s a small world. Japanese wood blocks sat next to oil paintings in 19th century Paris too.

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Ancient Alchemy

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A friend and I popped into the National Gallery one lunchtime this week. Among the tourists and school kids, we were guided by gently spoken attendants, who steered us towards Dutch Masters – and then on to Medieval gilt and godliness.

I was keen to find the Wilton Diptych (above). The photo above hardly does it justice. By an unknown artist (as everything was before Giotto) it dates from the 1390s. And a fine piece of early English patriotism it is too.

A gift to him, it shows King Richard II being presented to the Virgin and child by John the Baptist. An English King was clearly worthy of the Devine in every respect.

What really amazes – in a object over 700 years old – are the colours. The blue is dazzling, set off by the expanses of gold. And the intricate gilt of the robes is staggeringly precise. How did the unknown artist procure, prepare and render these vibrant hues in the very midst of the Dark Ages?

But forget a few hundreds of years. I read this week that there is new evidence from China of the widespread use of coal for smelting fully 4,500 years ago. They guess coal was discovered and deployed because large scale deforestation had forced innovation – all the charcoal had run out.

What remains is so little, that we risk underestimating the sophistication of long past eras. We will never know their names, but our ancient forebears were finding and combining precious metals and minerals with amazing, ingenuity, craft and artistry long centuries ago.

This dazzling blue and gold panel, made for an English King, is an incredibly rare and precious proof of genuine ancient alchemy. Devine.

Still Life

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Water Jug, Patrick Caulfield: Tate

In a slow meander of a large management meeting, I found myself contemplating a jug of water… How many colours therein? Such scintillations of light; and patches of shade.

How pure. How clean. What pipes and processes got it to this table. How rare in the history and geography of human existence to have water to hand in such pristine abundance. How much rarer – in the universe – to have the temperature and circumstances to sustain this elixir of life?

Art, origins, progress, luck and gratitude – all in a jug. And then back to tasks and voices and faces and work. But a wistful smile at the corners of my mouth perhaps betrayed I’d briefly escaped the mundane – and enjoyed a moment of wonder at the natural world. Life is in the small details sometimes.

Art Mimics Life

My lovely girl has got ‘in line’ skates for her Birthday. And very pleased with them she is too. At the same time – in the interests of developing my own interests – I decided to dust off and twang my old ukulele and pick a picture to contemplate from my unopened Christmas art book.

And here it is: ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’, a bronze Futurist sculpture from 1931 by Umberto Boccioni.

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Described as ‘an expression of movement and fluidity’, it has a bit more oomph than my wobbling ‘little Miss’. But the coincidence of art mimicking life tickled me.

Boccioni’s sculpture is depicted on the the Italian 20 cent euro coin. And after a tentative start she’s on the money too, trying hard – and getting there with her snazzy new skates.

Bear Necessities

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This picture – drawn by my daughter – melted my heart and sums up my week. It captures the beguiling mix of sleepiness, size and sheer cuddliness of the Giant Panda. Like the °0° koala, there is nothing in nature cuter than the right type of bear.

I, for my part, have been much more the sore-headed variety of bear. Plenty of reasons to be grizzly at work and robbed of the hope of weekend hibernation – by the prospect of Spring camping in the cold and rain. But a sneek peek at this picture has cheered me up on at least half a dozen occasions.

The sleepy panda adorned her school campaign poster to save the benighted black and white bear. But the latest thinking says forget ‘enigmatic species’ and save ecosystems if you want conservation – bamboo forests are the thing to focus on, not the coy, inscrutable and often unsuccessful pairings of pandas in zoos.

So perhaps the tree in the picture is as important as the adorable bear hanging off it. Whatever the truth, this picture has made me – and by sharing it – a good few other people smile this week. Perhaps now a few more.

Life as Art

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I always used to be big on objectivity – getting to what’s factually and actually right. But I’m much less obsessed with the ‘objective’ these days.

The (at times painful) discovery of my working and family life is that, with the exception of basic chemistry and arithmetic, pretty much everything in life is a matter of interpretation.

It all depends on where you’re looking from, what you’re looking with and how you’re understanding what you’re seeing. Different lives and different experiences equal very different interpretations of the same data. There are few facts and many interpretations.

So, with the passage of years and against my better judgement, I’m strangely drawn to Sartre’s view nicely encapsulated here:

Since I could always have chosen some other path in life, the one I follow is my own. Since nothing has been imposed on me from outside, there are no excuses for what I am.

Since the choices I make are ones I deem best, they constitute my proposal for what any human being ought to be.

The inescapable condition of human life is the requirement of choosing something and accepting the responsibility for the consequences.

Which makes me totally responsible for the life I choose.

Freed from the shackles of objectivity – that there is a right answer or a right way to live – I realise that in fact we often have more choice than we think.

What happens to us is more our responsibility than we are sometimes ready to accept. Every life is a unique, personal and ongoing act of creation. We live creating the ultimate work of art – ourselves.

Norman Mailer puts it pithily:

Every moment of one’s existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit.

Life is a work of art. But these days I’m happy to settle for the bustle of a Dutch feast, instead of seeking the perfection of an Italian ceiling.

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Writing

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Is there a better thing than writing? While I’m not with the 20th century British philosophers who said language is all there is, I am with Aquinas. He’d say that, along with body and soul, language is a defining part of the human experience.

20th century norms made writing a minority sport – one for the professional. The rise of social media in the 21st century means we can all have a go.

I find if I don’t get the chance to write something, the day feels unfulfilled. And if (rarely) I’ve a moment with nothing I have to do, writing – or reading someone else’s writing – is the first thing I want to do.

For twenty years – from university to my 42nd year – I didn’t write anything for my own pleasure at all. Thank goodness for the invention of iPhone as my carry along notebook. I couldn’t be happier than when tapping out a bit of text with my right thumb.