GARDENSNovember 11, 2019
A year or so ago, I encountered an essay on the Japanese garden by Saisei Muro (1889 – 1962), an excellent Japanese poet.
Muro wrote as follows:
Through Muro’s words, I received a jolt of recognition. Stones embody the profound refinement of the garden; the garden outlines the profound internal landscape of its steward’s mind. Gardens are as rich and mysterious as the layers of the human soul; much is hidden beneath the surface. As I sat with this realization, my mind recalled a dormant memory of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
I first visited the Rothko Chapel while organizing an exhibition at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, during an idle 30 minutes between two final meetings. But once I truly understood where I was, I left. I would only come back once I had an entire day to sit, to see, and to give to the space all of the time and contemplation it demanded. A fleeting moment would have been a disgrace. On that day I walked out, but with time I would return.
Pictured left: Garden steps in Kyoto, Japan
Like the axis between two seemingly disparate points, Saisei Muro’s essay awakened my understanding of the connection between a masterpiece of American modernism and the tradition of Japanese Gardens. Both represented the concentration of honed intellect and power, buried under earth or paint until their effects reveal themselves in slow, deliberate moments. The essay exposed this essential quality shared by both, which only sharpened my understanding of each with greater clarity.
Nestled deep inside his works, Rothko buried an enormous power. Dark and cautious at first, the pieces may appear reserved. But with each successive breath you draw in their presence, the towering paintings begin to accept their viewer and little by little reveal the force of their tremendous beauty. Under layers of dark oil, you begin to see so many colors. As you enter deeper and deeper into the pieces, reflections of yourself are refracted in the rich surfaces. It took me two days, with a day of rest in between, to immerse myself in the works and the space. Still, I feel that I have so much more to take in.
It also reminded me of my own garden.
Pictured right: Garden and pond at Saiho-ji Temple
I was born and raised in a two-century old family home in Kyoto. The house had a beautiful Japanese garden with a small pond, a stone lantern, water basins, abundant moss, and a courtyard. From this garden, I learned about seasons; about the changing light cast at different times of day, about different plants or garden stones and many other shinbigan (aesthetic senses) by sitting on the engawa (covered porch) either with my grandfather or father. Hours would pass without the sound of a word between us. Sometimes he pointed to something, such as a ray of morning sun resting on a patch of moss shining shyly with dew. I held my breath with joy at the sight. Without words, my father and I exchanged a glance and smiled.
The garden lives, breathes, and feels with us. We grow up with it until we become responsible for its stewardship. Ten generations before me nurtured the garden of my early life. It felt times of joy and sadness, patiently watching over the comings and goings of our days for centuries. It absorbed our shinbigan (aesthetic senses) and constantly evolved with us, only to carry this buried intelligence to stewards of the next generation. If one looks upon a garden of great quality for long enough, they find that it reflects their own inner self.
The buried aesthetics of the Japanese garden reveal themselves perhaps even slower than in Rothko’s work; They cannot be taken in by a cursory glance. They are hidden beneath the familiar veneer of the garden, its stone lanterns, basins, moss, and plants. While these things may be beautiful on their own, it is the composition of the garden that speaks to the grace of its steward’s mind. In this spacing, centuries of Shinbigan are buried.
The highest forms of gardens are reflections of a deeply considered internal landscape. As with Rothko’s Chapel, we look to them, and see our own souls reflected back.
Pictured left: Tea House at Saiho-ji Temple
LANTERNSOctober 30, 2019 (LANTERN PHOTOS BY DAVID STROUD)
Mitsui Fine Arts is presenting excellent stones in an exhibition with Hosfelt Gallery. This writing will discuss the tradition of stone lanterns among the exhibited pieces.
Stones have long been carved into the form of lanterns, made to stand alone and shed gentle light in a garden or temple. In Japan, they fall into two broad categories.
Stone lanterns came to Japan from Korea with Buddhism in the 8th century. Until the Kamakura period (1185–1333), few can be found in Japan, either because few were carved or because those produced did not resist the erosion of time. But soon thereafter, many examples arose, such as the solitary but majestic lantern that stands in front of Byō-dō-in Temple in Uji.
This exemplifies the first kind of stone lantern in Japan: that of the temple or shrine. These kinds of lanterns are traditionally placed on the premises of a temple, illuminating the path towards spiritual space.
As time passed, Ishi-ku (stone artisans) became increasingly adept at carving the body of stones into elegant lantern shapes. Finished with their phase of “copying and learning” the lanterns of Korea by the Kamakura Period , they began producing truly excellent, and more decidedly Japanese, stone lanterns from the Kamakura to Muromachi Period.
With the perfection of the Way of Tea around the Momoyama and Edo periods, stone lanterns experienced a rebirth. According to written accounts, the revered tea master Sen Rikyū (1522-1591) once visited a temple at night. As he approached through the dark of night, he noticed the dying light of a lantern, which only barely cast illumination around itself. The sight of this feeble light stirred a jolt of inspiration in Rikyū’s heart; he understood that it embodied the essence of Wabi aesthetics. After that night, stone lanterns began to appear in the gardens of tea rooms.
The life of lanterns in Japan shifted after Rikyū’s temple visit. As the Way of Tea spread, stones started their journey from temple gardens and entered into the more secular, personal context of the gardens of tea rooms.
Lanterns placed in those gardens represent the second category of stone lantern in Japan. They became increasingly popular in the Edo period, and demand grew for the style of lanterns that could be found in temples. Dedicated tea connoisseurs even traveled to temples, hoping to receive lanterns in exchange for a generous donation. As this practice continued, the supply of lanterns from temples began to subside, and collectors began to look elsewhere to satisfy their appetite.
The earliest temple lanterns were old by this time, weathered by years spent outdoors. After time, some tumbled over, broke, or wore down, and their fragmented ruins were left to erode on the garden floors of temples. Inventive collectors, seeing the latent potential of Wabi in the beautifully weathered pieces, began to gather and reassemble their disparate parts. This style became known as Yose Doro, or “put together lantern”, and came to exemplify lantern aesthetics.
One may wish to know more about these lanterns. Sadly, writing can only explain so much about the ways they came to differ through the ages. In order to digest their history, one could visit Japanese temples and gardens of tea rooms, just as they could better understand the effect of Hagia Sophia by standing upon its marble floors. Until then, we may give thanks for those few lanterns that have made their way to America, and wonder about their passage through space and time.
When we encounter a lantern today, whether from a temple or personal garden, we observe its subtle beauty and feel our hearts warmed, like Rikyū’s, by quiet light.
STONESOctober 16, 2019
The carving of stones stems from a tradition long practiced in Japan. Stones are an essential facet of Japanese art and design, regarded alongside the highest forms of painting or ceramic arts. Through our association with long respected stone sources in Kyoto, Mitsui Fine Arts has been granted the opportunity to introduce a selection of stones in America. These stones are centuries old works, carved by skilled Ishiku stone artisans. Few of this quality can be found even in Kyoto, and even fewer make their way across the pacific. As result, very little is known about them outside of Japan. This writing is part of a series that will introduce the stones to the audience of Mitsui Fine Arts, and shed light on the particular spirit of their beauty.
Stones are old and silent things, pregnant with the feeling of melancholy. Their dense bodies have existed long before our human ones and will exist long after. To understand them requires no words. The bond between man and stone is much deeper and older, formed in a time that preceded language.
Yes, stones are silent. But that doesn't mean they don't speak. It takes time and a deep sensitivity to allow an understanding of stones to stir within us. They will remain flat and impenetrable to a mind prone to restlessness. One must instead reach a placid state to commune with the stones, an understanding of the beauty of scarceness.
Consider the haiku by Buson:
In a desolate, withering field,
A stone is receiving a solemn, last ray of sun.
This haiku transports us to a state of mind resonant with the ultimate beauty of the stones. It is the sad, sparse beauty of a withering field at dusk, where all signs of life have transpired except for the final ray of sun on a lonesome stone. The stone is simply there. In its quiet patience, it receives a solemn stroke of warmth. Buson, the poet listened to it and caught it.
AGNES MARTIN: "A TRULY VACANT STATE OF MIND"
Centuries after the stones were carved, of the greatest artists of American modernism, Agnes Martin, would receive an epiphany in the form of a grid. In 1964, Martin laid pencil to canvas in deliberate, measured perpendicular strokes and softened bands of shading to create Wood 1. Martin was pleased with the painting in a way that she hadn't felt before; it was, at last, a vision of purity and innocence free of artistic pretense. She took the most minimal, humble gesture, simply a line of graphite, and summoned a work of preternatural grace. Martin later spoke that the work only came to her after she achieved "a truly vacant state of mind."
Martin's work and approach as an artist runs parallel to the viewer's method of understanding the stones. They converge at a meeting point of internal quiet, two vectors meeting at the same solitary destination. For to view the stones requires a loosening of one's self from the trappings of ego, just as Martin loosened the thoughts from her agitated mind to receive undiluted inspiration.
Martin's work is silent, strong, and full of depth, like the stones. Both offer perhaps the greatest gift, a moment of peace, to those who may stop to hear them. This requires a small sacrifice as well. In the give and take of life, one must for a moment release their self in order to receive the warm light of beauty.
To view Martin's work, click on the artwork link below:
Oil and pencil on canvas. Courtesy of MoMA.org
(© 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)