Saturday, November 22, 2014

Rain & Snow: Kawase Hasui

Sometime in the early 1930s, a young man named Robert Muller noticed a woodblock print in a New York shop window and went inside for closer look. He ended up buying the print, using his meager monthly student allowance of $5. The print was Kawase Hasui’s 1931 work, Kiyosu Bridge. Later in his life, Muller opened a print and framing shop in New Haven, Connecticut and became an astute collector who over the years stimulated renewal and development in the art of Japanese woodblock printing.

One of the blogs I always look forward to reading celebrates the old shitamachi district of Tokyo and is written by a young South African woman living and working there. My great enjoyment in her writing (and photos) comes from the fact that I lived in Tokyo myself for 28 years, yet never fail to learn something new in blogposts from Rurousha. A week ago her post opened with a photo of Kawase Hasui’s woodblock print, Kiyosu Bridge. The artist’s name was not new to me and in line with other Japanese art posts I’ve done, with encouragement from Rurousha it seemed a good time to devote some space to this woodblock print artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) was a leading figure in the shin-hanga, or ‘new prints’ movement of Japanese woodblock printmaking. As a young man he studied with Kaburagi Kiyotaka, the man who founded the shin-hanga concept. Hasui traveled frequently, filling sketchbooks with drawings of scenic places around Japan. Many of his print designs are based on his watercolors, many of them done a year or two before the appearance of a first print, but in some cases years, even decades passed between the original work and the print version.

A Tea Plantation, 1941; watercolor in preparation for a woodblock print

Most of Hasui’s prints appear to be based on beautiful, atmospheric watercolors, probably done on location. His sketchbooks include what look like preparatory sketches for either a watercolor or print but it is hard to say much definitively about his creative process as it remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, and for now at least, lacking in very many substantiated facts. Through his teacher Hasui met Shôzaburô Watanabe, a driving force behind shin-hanga printmaking. Watanabe ultimately published most of Hasui’s work.

Daimotsu, Amagasaki in the Rain, 1940

In the print above we see not an old rural Japan but the blossoming industrial Japan of Hasui’s day. Despite that, it is an unmistakably Japanese setting.

Hasui is highly regarded for his exquisite color, perspective and ambiance in a wide range of woodblock prints. Over his lifetime he created over 600 different prints and is recognized as one of most prolific shin-hanga artists of the period. In 1953, the Japanese government decided to commemorate traditional printmaking and commissioned Hasui to make a special woodblock print. The result was Snow at Zojoji Temple, a work later designated an Intangible Cultural Treasure. The year before his death in 1957, Hasui was named a Living National Treasure in Japan.

Snow at Zojoji Temple, 1953

Pond at Benten Shrine in Shiba, 1929

The Road to Nikko, 1930

Cloudy Day, Mizuki Ibaragi, 1946

Mandarin Ducks, 1950

Night Rain at Kawarako, Ibaragi, 1947

Dahlias, 1940

The print of Dahlias, along with Mandarin Ducks above are examples of Hasui’s few non-landscape compositions.

For more about the art of woodblock prints see an earlier post here.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Muddy Dogs & Arks

Paradise is wilting. For long months I sang praises of the beauty and the beasts of a green homestead ideally situated along a country road. Three or four weeks ago the rains came and the beauty (though not the beasts) began to sink beneath a daily onslaught of monsoon-like weather. Everything outdoors has become a swampy bog of rain battered grass and mud stirred up by swimming armadillos. The drainage canal running under the drive outside my gate is rising to the top of its banks while great ponds of water the breadth of swimming pools stand in three or four places around the yard. During the brief times between rain, trees shiver in a wind shaking off cascades of water that drench me still and deepen the squishiness beneath my shoes. Yesterday my nearest neighbor and I were joking about building an ark to save us and our dogs, but not the mosquitos and armadillos, nor the water moccasins looking for high ground. Closer to Indian River Lagoon, Manny’s yard is more flooded than my own and to step outside his house he needs rubber boots and a snake bite kit.

My yard is less threatening. Apart from the swarms of mosquitos that fasten on to me and Farina dog and hitch a ride into the house, my concern these days is keeping Farina out of the pools of standing water. Like a six year-old child who thrills to a romp in the summertime splash pool, Farina loves nothing more than to zoom in high speed circles through one pool and on to the next, finally plopping herself down to pant and drink the muddy water. Naturally she comes back to the house soaking wet, covered in mud and with a big grin on her face. She would love to run and jump on the bed to wallow herself clean but instead gets confined to the back porch until I can wipe her down. Given total freedom she would do this until I ran out of towels, happy that the next time she could stay dirty. That Farina is a caution. For the time being she’s making do with leash only outings, not allowed near her pleasure pools.

What do you do with grass that grows super fast under a pall of rain? Anybody will tell you not to try and mow a wet lawn, especially if you’re riding a 300 pound lawnmower on less than dry ground. For the past two weeks I’ve been sitting on my back porch watching the grass get taller and taller as it gets wetter and wetter. A large area reaching out from the porch about 100 feet is slightly higher than the surrounding area and last Thursday we had a miraculous clearing of skies that brought warm sunshine for three quarters of the day, me watching and testing that high ground for dryness every hour. Around 4 o’clock I decided the ground and grass were dry enough to run the mower and cut down the burgeoning grass with all its hiding places for snakes.

Red Ants Flourishing in the Rain

I probably have the worst reputation anywhere for luck with lawnmowers and have encountered every mechanical dysfunction there is at one time or another. It would help if I knew the fuel line from the brake pedal but since I don’t repairs have been costly. I finally broke down and bought a “new” machine but on occasion have managed to stall that one too. Appears to be no limit to my jinx. So, out in the exhilarating sunshine motoring through the tall grass, I had almost finished cutting the area of high ground when I either turned too quickly or too suddenly and heard an ominous SNAP! And in that second I lost my steering. No need to dither or sit there scratching my chin. Obviously I was once more thrown into the hands of a repairman.

I’m beginning to think there must be something anti-mechanical in my blood. About a month ago in the space of seven days and with no particular stress, first my vacuum cleaner broke and a day later the rice cooker; that was followed two days later by the death of my printer and on Saturday the passing of my DVD player. I mean, hell, what’s going on with a string of tragedies like that? As I said to a friend later, “I’m wearing a helmet around the house these days because I expect the roof to fall down on me any day.”

Yes, I still love life in the country on my muddy dirt road just west of Indian River, but it does have its challenges. But most of all I would never take my dog away from the heaven she’s found out here.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Collector of Souls

With a career that spanned from the 1920s into the 80s, Alice Neel is widely regarded as one of the greatest figurative painters of the twentieth century. Born on January 28, 1900 in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the third of four children, she was raised in a straight-laced middle-class family at a time when expectations and opportunities for women were limited. After graduating from high school, Neel took the Civil Service exam and got a well paid clerical position that helped support her parents. After three years of work and art classes at night, she enrolled in the Fine Art program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1921, graduating in 1925.

Still Life, Rose of Sharon, 1973; Whitney Museum, New York

While in art school, Neel met an upper-class Cuban painter named Carlos Enríquez and married him in 1924. She eventually moved to Havana to live with her husband’s family and was there embraced by the Cuban avant-garde, a group of young writers, artists and musicians. It was in this environment that Neel developed the foundations of her lifelong political consciousness and commitment to equality.

Pat Whalen, 1935; Whitney Museum

A daughter, Santillana, was born in Havana in December of 1926. The couple returned to New York where one month short of her first birthday, Santillana died of diphtheria. In November of 1928, a second daughter, Isabella Lillian (Isabetta) was born in New York City. Barely two years later, Carlos returned to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him. Mourning the loss of her husband and daughter, Neel suffered a massive nervous breakdown, was hospitalized, and after a suicide attempt doctors placed her in the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital.

Self Portrait, 1980; National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Released in 1931, Neel moved to New York where for many years she remained poor and unrecognized as an artist. And yet she was a pioneer among American women artists, living a life devoted to her art despite any and all circumstances. For decades she chose her subjects from family, friends, and a wide assortment of local writers, poets, artists, students, textile salesmen, psychologists, cabaret singers, and homeless bohemians, a selection of subjects that was a portrayal of, and dialogue with the city in which she lived. Neel thought of herself as a “collector of souls” and it is clear that she honored those she chose to paint, portraits oftentimes more real than the people themselves, full of restlessness, vulnerability and imperfection. In an interview shortly before her death in 1984 she said, “I could have been a great psychiatrist but it’s more fun being an artist. I see what’s here; I don’t look for anything, I just look…I love to paint people torn to shreds by the rat race of New York.”

Peggy, 1949
Notice the unnaturally lanky arms that stretch out and double back, hands (one open, one curled closed) at rest on either side of the face, fragile but insistent arrows pointing to the cut above one eye, bruises beside the other.

Alice Neel’s obscurity ended when the woman’s movement discovered her in the 1970s and brought a success closely tied to gender equality and feminism. Her portrait of Kate Millet for the August 31, 1970 cover of Time magazine was the result of her new found recognition.

My Mother, 1952; private collection

How does one define the painting of Alice Neel? As realist, expressionist, psychological portraitist, or what? Some might tag her as a social realist but her art is as far removed from social realism as it is from pop. An astute critic may see in the artist’s roots a mixture of the Northern European tradition, New York’s Ashcan School, and American primitive, but there is something about Neel’s art that defies categories. The Art Spirit, a book by the Ashcan School’s Robert Henri was Neel’s bible. Art critic Jeremy Lewison has said that Neel’s realistic approach to the human form at a time of growing abstraction among her contemporaries confirmed her as an outsider. Looking at a collection of Neel’s work the viewer is made to see something fresh, vital, moving, amusing, tender, cruel, mournful, grotesque or sparse. Impressions can be contradictory in the work of Alice Neel, but almost always a visceral experience that plays with the emotions.

Virgil Thompson, 1971

George Arce, a neighborhood boy Neel sketched and painted on several occasions

George Arce, a few years older

Friday, August 8, 2014

Pockets & Watches

Thinking back to what many of us wore to school as kids, blue jeans and white T-shirts were right at the top. Along with a pair of US Keds high-top tennis shoes it was practically an unofficial uniform, making the combination easily the most familiar articles of clothing in the closet and dresser of my boyhood. At the time I never paid much mind to the details of those daily trousers, never thought about the trademark rivets or the button fly, just something I pulled on in the morning and kicked off at night.

I read today in my West Virginia friend’s blog, A Reader’s Life, that she was surprised to discover a lot of people these days don’t know what a watch pocket is. Hey, I’m surprised too. Aren’t many guys out there who still carry a pocketwatch and I have to believe a lot also who didn’t or don’t wear blue jeans. In those days when jeans were a daily custom, I didn’t carry a pocketwatch but I did know that the little pocket in my Levis was made to hold one. I guess, “What’s this little pocket for?” was a question I asked the man in the department store one day. But yeah, I too am surprised that not so many people today know what that little pocket was originally for. 

In the late 1800s cowboys, miners and other outdoor workers often kept a watch on a chain in the pocket of a waistcoat or vest. And then in 1873 Levi Strauss introduced a small pocket designed expressly to hold a pocketwatch. The first blue jeans had four pockets—one in back and two in front with the addition of a small pocket stitched and riveted to the top of the right front pocket. The smaller pocket was included as protection for pocketwatches and thus the name, watch pocket. Since its first appearance this extra pouch-like pocket has had many functions, evident in a few of its other names: frontier pocket, condom pocket, coin pocket, match pocket and ticket pocket. Not surprising that many people today have no real idea of what that little pocket is called or what the Levi Strauss company had in mind when they included it in their denims. 

The thing is, I do have a pocketwatch, but one that hasn’t spent much time in that special little pocket on my blue jeans (Yeah, still wearing them almost every day.) but these days rests in a dish on the coffee table. Not the first time to mention the watch in these pages; it has found space a couple of times in my scribbles about this or that. I got the watch not too many years ago at a secondhand shop in my old Tokyo neighborhood, a conductor’s watch commonly used by drivers and conductors on Japanese trains. The watch has for many years been made by the Japanese watchmaker, Seiko, with upgrades every few years. Mine is one of the 7550 quartz series made in 1978—thirty-six years old and still keeping accurate time. At the time of production, Seiko advertised the watch as having an accuracy within 15 seconds per month. 

Before my head got turned by watches and pockets this morning, I was stopped by the sight of my new and flourishing guacamole tree on the back porch. About a month ago, in the business of making a bowl of guacamole, I cut open an avocado and noticed that the seed was slightly split and with a tiny white root coming out of the bottom end. It was the first time to see that in years and I right away did the old trick of sticking the seed with toothpicks and resting it half in-half out of a glass of water. In two weeks another tiny three roots had grown out and down into the water. At the end of the third week I planted the seed in a pot of soil and put it in a sunny spot near the screen door. Here’s what it looks like today…

In the wild growth of summer my backyard is in some spots an explosion of green. I keep a compost heap for leaf litter, moss and the smaller branches that drop from the oak trees and from the backend of the compost has grown up a wild mix of plants. I can’t identify half the plants and have to wonder what they will grow into. As the picture below shows, the walls of the unpainted enclosure are old and weathered and though it’s hard to see, soon to collapse. The project for next week is to replace those walls.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Sad Time

Not long after I’d returned to the US from Japan, I met a couple living a few doors away from my place at the beach. There was something about our meeting that first time that assured me we would become good friends. 

And that we certainly did. 

At the time, Fred and Kathleen were good medicine in the sense of helping me through the re-acclimation to American life, something I’d long been away from. It wasn’t long before I was calling them best friends, always happy to share dinner or a bottle of wine or nothing more than an hour of good conversation on the patio. Over the past four years there has never been a day I wouldn’t be grateful for time together with these friends.

About three weeks back Fred and Kathleen went to south Florida to spend time with family at the Club Med Resort. During their days there they renewed their wedding vows for the third time. Nine days ago I had lunch at their beach condo where I practically slavered over a casserole that took the place of the cold cuts she hinted we might have. Twice this past week I have made that dish, something I now call Kathy’s Kasserole.

Between March 2012 and November 2013 she wrote a blog called The Three Rs of Cancer: Remission-Recurrence-Resilience about her experiences of dealing with cancer and about the importance of remaining positive and upbeat in the face of a difficult battle. 

I am heartbroken to report that our good friend-wife-mother-sister and grandmother passed away early this morning. Fred, you and the entire family are in our thoughts and prayers.

Kathleen  1945-2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Aftermath of Cleopatra

It took recommendations from different people over a long period of time but several months late I finally got around to Jess Walter’s 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins

Hard to recall a book I’ve enjoyed as much in the last half year. 

With a book buying budget teetering on the brink of calamity, I opted for the local library but discovered the book was on reserve—good sign for one published over two years ago. The paperback came out in April of this year, so finding a copy on store shelves shouldn’t be hard. And of course, there’s always Amazon who can get an inexpensive copy to readers anywhere in a week or two.

Author, Jess Walter lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington with his wife and three children. His most recent book is a collection of short stories titled, We Live in Water: Stories. He has written six novels as well as two non-fiction books. His novel Citizen Vince won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2006, The Zero was a National Book Award finalist and Beautiful Ruins was included in the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012. HIs books have been translated into twenty-eight languages.

Beautiful Ruins brings a story that jumps here and there across fifty years from Italy to Hollywood, on to Seattle, London and places far and in-between. It begins with the arrival of a striking young woman in a tiny village on the coast of Italy. While filming the epic movie Cleopatra in 1962 Richard Burton “trifles” with the beautiful young bit-part actress who is later bundled off the set with a story that she is dying of stomach cancer, her symptoms very like those of early pregnancy. None the wiser, she is taken to a tiny village on the coast of Italy where she meets a young Italian named Pasquale. From there we follow a boldly entertaining cast of characters across fifty years to a little theater in present day Idaho. 

For all its color, its richness of character and bravura storytelling, Beautiful Ruins is at heart a novel of social criticism offering the reader much more than mere superficial entertainment. Each of the writer’s characters shows us another side of what it is to dream, to lie, to take advantage, fail and then ultimately understand what we are. Two of Walter’s central characters—the actress and the young Italian, Pasquale—are set apart in their goodness and honesty, but are forced to find their way through a world of others serving only themselves, feeding their own misguided selfishness. 

From here forward this reader’s eyes and ears will be tuned to anything by Jess Walter. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Duh-Byoose 3

Frequent rain along with a near medieval plague of mosquitos here in dirt road country has kept me pretty much housebound the past couple of weeks. Those rare times when I run from front door to car I have to hope that only a dozen or so of the bloodthirsty devils will join me behind the wheel. Farina the dog is wary as well, on more than one occasion breaking into a Saint Vitus dance when the attack comes from all sides. We are both happier ensconced on the back porch where we can watch the rain safe from mosquitos and happy with book or bone. 

Andre Dubus III is the author of six books: The Cage Keeper and Other Stories (1989), Bluesman (1993), House of Sand and Fog (1999), The Garden of Last Days (2008), Townie (2011) and Dirty Love (2013). His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, and a 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, as well as being a finalist for the National Book Award. His books have been published in over twenty-five languages.

Dubus grew up in mill towns in the Merrimack River valley along the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border and began writing fiction at the age of 22, just a few months after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelors Degree in sociology.

At my local library a couple of weeks ago I came upon a Dubus book on the New Fiction shelf, his most recent work titled Dirty Love, published in October 2013. The writer’s name was not new to me and I remembered him immediately as the author of House of Sand and Fog, a book I read in 1999. With that in mind, I took home this latest book from Mr Dubus almost certain it would turn out to be a good read. 

And it was. Dirty Love is a book of four novellas, each story set in the same town north of Boston and including minor characters that reappear in a subsequent story almost like a familiar face from down the street or the guy at the local Starbucks. Writing about Dirty Love in The New York Times, Jeff Turrentine reminds us that newlyweds crossing the threshold are walking into a ‘…daunting meshwork of married-folk dialectics: conquest and submission, selfhood and union, lust and shame, rejoicing and regret…so disoriented by love they honestly can’t tell whether they’re looking for a way into or a way out of it.’ This is a good description of characters who fumble through infidelity, philandering, romantic disillusionment and the betrayal of friends and family. My experience with Andre Dubus III has sometimes been that many of his characters come across as unsympathetic people who too often orchestrate their own problems. I found less of that in this new book. The final and best of the four stories is the sad tale of Devon, a high school dropout shattered by dirty love and the betrayal of friends and parents. 

Impressed by Dirty Love, I next dug up a copy of Dubus’s 2008 book, The Garden of Last Days, a story inspired by the suspected visit of one 9/11 hijacker to a Florida strip club shortly before the attacks. Probably my favorite of this writer’s work, it tells the story of an early September night in 2011 when a stripper in Florida is forced to bring her three year-old daughter to the Puma Club for Men because her babysitter has been hospitalized. Not well received by all critics, this was for me a relentless charge through over 500 pages, the story and viewpoint switching between five voices: April the stripper, Bassam the jihadist, A.J. an angry customer ejected from the club, Lonnie the club bouncer and Jean, April’s elderly landlady and babysitter. Dubus shapes anger, desperation, sexuality and fear into an absorbing novel I found hard to put down. Rumor has it that James Franco is planning to direct and star in a movie version of the book. Action-packed, that’s for sure.

A few days later I began the Dubus memoir, Townie, one that followed publication of The Garden of Last Days. Though born in California, Dubus grew up north of Boston in an area of depressed mills, poverty, drugs and alcoholism, where violence lived around every corner and where bullying was a way of life. I stuck with this one for 250 pages but finally put it down because the people of Dubus’s childhood and youth were mostly thugs and drunks quick to pound on the next guy or girl. At one point, afraid of his neighbors or classmates, Dubus took up weightlifting and boxing, turning himself into what he had previously feared. It is a great credit to him that he ultimately lifted himself out of that anger and brutality to become a respected writer, professor and family man. But his was a forge too harrowing for me and after the chapters leading to his early twenties I laid it aside. That said, I would discourage no one from reading the book. It has won awards and been called riveting and unforgettable. 

These days I am rereading House of Sand and Fog, the 1999 book that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and one that Dubus conceived after reading a tiny newspaper article telling of a woman losing her house when erroneously evicted for unpaid taxes. There is something Shakespearian about the tragedy that befalls the characters in this book. Kathy Nicolo is a recovering addict whose husband walked out and who repeatedly ignores letters from the tax office until the day they knock on her door with an eviction notice. Forced into a motel room, her belongings in storage, the house left to her by her father is auctioned off by the state, bought by a former colonel in the Iranian military under the Shah trying to make a life for his family after fleeing Iran. And that is only the beginning. All involved are on a path to disaster. House of Sand and Fog is a harrowing and beautifully written novel. For a reader looking to sample Andre Dubus III, this one is the ticket.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America