Welcome to Z…the very last day of the Blogging A-Z April Challenge. As you may be aware, my theme for 2018 is Writing Letters to Dead Artists and the last artist I’ll be writing to during the challenge, is Japanese artist Shibata Zeshin (1801-1891).
During this series, I’ve revealed a raw honesty which is somewhat of a personal trademark. So, I’m undermine that by pretending that I understand Shibata Zeshin, and know everything there is to know about him. Indeed, after so many very late nights and burning the post-midnight oil, I was even prepared to be creative…a dead artist who was snoring Z’s perhaps…
However, thank goodness for my Google lucky dips, because I not only found Shibata Zeshin but I very bravely dipped my toe into the very tip of the Japanese art “iceberg”. Personally, I find it a bit intimidating tapping into Japanese art. Their culture is much more structured than what I’m used to which many rules and an exquisite attention to detail which in itself is totally foreign to me. Moreover, as an aspiring perfectionist, there’s only one thing I hate making mistakes and try to fill myself up with so much knowledge and detail that I couldn’t possibly slip up and get something wrong, especially mucking up something as important as a historical detail. People have been hung, drawn and quartered for less.
Yet, it is far better to get up and have a go and do something. To extend yourself beyond the safe and the familiar than it is to stay within your comfort zone and go nowhere. I keep reminding myself of this, but quite often these processes are quite unconscious and our lives are that busy, that we can easily move onto something else and that covers up our avoidance. I guess this is where going public with your ambitions is important. There’s always someone who’ll ask you how that book you abandoned a few years ago and consigned to the bottom drawer is going. One of these days, I’d at least like to tell them that something got published. Anything! I’m not fussy anymore. Indeed, am rapidly sliding towards desperate, which as any single out in the dating scene knows, is never a good thing.
Anyway, here goes…
Shibata Zeshin was born and raised in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). His grandfather Izumi Chobei and his father Ichigoro were shrine carpenters (miyadaiku) and skilled wood carvers. His father, who had taken his wife’s family name of Shibata, was also an experienced ukiyo-e painter, having studied under Katsukawa Shunshō. At age eleven, Kametaro, as Zeshin was called in his childhood, became apprenticed to a lacquerer named Koma Kansai II. At age 13, the young man who would become Zeshin abandoned the name Kametaro and became Junzo. Koma Kansai decided that his young charge would need to learn to sketch, paint, and create original designs in order to become a great lacquerer. He arranged for young Shibata to study under Suzuki Nanrei, a great painter of the Shijō school. Shibata then took on yet another artist’s name, abandoning Junzo and signing his works “Reisai,” using the Rei from Suzuki Nanrei, and the sai from Koma Kansai.
It was during his time with Nanrei that he was given the name Zeshin, which he would stick with for the rest of his life. The name has a meaning similar to “this is true” or “the Truth”. It was a reference to an old Chinese tale of a king who held an audience with a great number of painters. While nearly all of the painters afforded the king the proper respect, bowing before him and comporting themselves appropriately, one arrived half-naked, did not bow, and sat on the floor licking his paintbrush; the king exclaimed “now, this is a true artist!” And from this the name Zeshin was taken. That story really amused me.
Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891) was the greatest of all lacquer artists. His unique talent was hewn from a childhood spent in traditional artisan workshops, a strong respect and devotion to tradition, and a constant thirst for innovation and self-education. His career saw the transition of Japan from the Edo (samurai) period to the Meiji era, when the nation, united under a semi-constitutional monarchy, set about an ambitious modernization process that would rapidly develop the country into a world power.
Zeshin took full advantage of these abrupt changes. A shogunal decree restricting artists’ use of precious metals, materials considered essential to lacquer work, led Zeshin to instead employ bronze dust, charcoal, and iron filings to create novel, eye-teasing effects. One of very few lacquerers granted the title of Artist to the Imperial Household, he later embraced the emergence of Japan on the world stage, exhibiting his work at international expositions and developing new ways to push the boundaries of lacquer to rival Western oil paintings. It was during this period that Zeshin created a series of masterpieces in lacquered wood, lacquer painting, and conventional ink painting on paper or silk that attracted numerous prominent clients and made him one of the first living Japanese artists to achieve name recognition in Europe and the United States. Yet he remained at heart a proud member of Japan’s urban artisan class, and his art is emblematic of his extraordinary ability to combine two conflicting roles in a time of national upheaval.
Through his depictions of nature, Zeshin has elevated the simple into something truly magnificent, and almost had an ethereal sense. Indeed, he’s immortalised his fleeting glimpses of nature and his works have that real sense of being in the moment, or even inside it, where time doesn’t even exist and the observer and the subject are one. Moreover, he also brings out the spirit of the subject.
This brings me to Zeshin’s Grasshopper & Sunflower 1877. While the sunflower immediately caught my eye and the grasshopper was more of a distraction or something to be shoed away, this is not my culture and my gut told me this grasshopper was there for a reason That is, one other than hiding from some kid madly chasing it with their Bug Catcher. Oops! That’s right. They didn’t have Bug Catchers back in 1877, but I’m sure someone or something was trying to catch it in their own way, even if it was just the artist with his brush. Anyway, that’s how I found out that the Japanese see the grasshopper as a symbol of good luck and have a long tradition of enjoying their beautiful calls, both in the wild and as pets. Indeed, grasshoppers also appeared in Haiku:
Grasshopper’s song in
Yet, as I said, I was drawn to the sunflower, not the grasshopper.
“I don’t think there’s anything on this planet that more trumpets life that the sunflower. For me that’s because of the reason behind its name. Not because it looks like the sun but because it follows the sun. During the course of the day, the head tracks the journey of the sun across the sky. A satellite dish for sunshine. Wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. And that’s such an admirable thing. And such a lesson in life.”
― Helen Mirren, Actor
If you’ve been following the series through, you may recall that I have a very strong attachment to Van Gogh’s Sunflower Series. Indeed, I have a print of the London version hanging in our hallway, and have also seen the Amsterdam version in person and experienced the sunflowers dancing right in front of me. Back at university, I also recited my “sunflower” poem at readings, and it became a bit of a connection with the person I wrote it about. So, just like Van Gogh, I felt like the sunflower was mine.
In Japanese, the sunflower is called Himari, it is very popular in Japan and even has its own festival in Zama city, Kanagawa prefecture where farmers plant sunflowers as a fill in crop after the wheat harvest to avoid undesirable weeds proliferating in the fields. Presumably the farmers also harvest and sell the sunflower seeds.
However, the sunflower isn’t just an eye-catching beauty. As well as providing a harvest of seeds, sunflowers also reduce toxins in the soil through a process called phytoremediation. The sunflower sucks up toxins like lead, arsenic and uranium, which are sucked up by the roots and after a few generations, the soil can be returned to forests. Indeed, through the Chernobyl Sunflower Project, sunflowers were used to clean up the radioactive waste in the plant’s cooling pond. Japan has followed their lead with the Fukushima Sunflower project to remove radioactive waste after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
Personally, I find this very exciting. While I don’t lie awake worrying about the fallout from these disasters, you only have to switch on the news to be very concerned about the state of our planet and a natural solution like this is absolutely fantastic. Bring it on.
The only question I have is…Do you think we could possibly plant sunflowers inside the brains of society’s bad eggs, and decontaminate them? Indeed, this process could also be used to treat depression? Hey, I just thought of a third possible application….plant sunflowers in the brains of teenagers and they’ll start turning to the sun all day, instead of their electronics. Much better for them!
Sunflowers, therefore, have their healing powers and there was perhaps no greater psychological need, than when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in the Ukraine and the plane just happened to crash in a field of sunflowers, who incidentally turned their faces away from the horror. Everyone onboard was killed and the twisted and broken wreckage reflected the heartbreak and brokenness of their loved ones and mourners the world over. You might not be aware that the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul McGeough, Foreign Correspondent and photographer, Kate Gerraghty, salvaged sunflower seeds from the scene and brought them back via quarantine for the families and friends of the victims. Paul McGeogh writes: “we had decided that if families and friends of the Australian victims could not get to the crash site, then we were obliged to bring them a keepsake. First we wondered about a small quantity of soil, which might be carried in a locket. But we settled on seeds – they would be lighter, more compact and, with careful gardening, might be propagated from year to year. It would help too, we thought, that sunflowers are such happy chaps.”
It’s a long story but I received some of these seeds in the mail and planted them in our backyard. I also took the seedlings into my kids’ classes at school and beyond and talking about what these photographers did to make a difference. My only hope is that these seeds grew and the sunflowers’s smiles and their special phytoremediation abilities somehow managed to ease their grief.
However, it just so happened that the plane landed in a field of sunflowers and I guess these beautiful, vibrant flowers can to represent good triumphing over evil and hate, as well as a hope for the future when for the families who lost their precious loved ones, they were plunged not only into unfathomable grief, but also a burning sense of injustice. A need to see terrorism, war and violence wiped off the face of the earth. Or, at the very least, from underneath the flight paths of passenger jets.
“The orange of the golden carp appeared at the edge of the pond. . . . We watched in silence at the beauty and grandeur of the great fish. Out of the corners of my eyes I saw Cico hold his hand to his breast as the golden carp glided by. Then with a switch of his powerful tail the golden carp disappeared into the shadowy water under the thicket.”
― Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima
Returning to environmental disasters, as much as I really admired Shibato Zeshin’s carp, as an Australian, I find it very hard to like carp anymore after they’ve taken over many Australian waterways and are killing our native fish. It’s been a huge problem for quite awhile, especially in the Murray River. However, there are plans to release a virulent strain of herpes virus into the Murray-Darling river system in a bid to eradicate European carp, in what Science Minister Christopher Pyne has dubbed a “carp-aggedon”.
So after staring at the sunflowers, chasing grasshoppers and trying to keep the carp out of our river systems, I’d better start writing my letter to Shibata Zeshin.
My Letter to Shibata Zeshin
The obvious thing to ask anyone whose name starts with Z, is whether they’re always sick of being last and always at the end of the alphabet? Most humans are very stuck in their ways and for some reason organizing things in reverse alphabetical order is too difficult. I’m not sure whether they think they’re some very complex and difficult mathematical equation involved, or if they’re just lazy. Of course, I could understand why a librarian wouldn’t want to rearrange an entire library just to give the Z authors a better chance of being chosen, but is doesn’t take much to rearrange a classroom of kids. Mind you, I guess that would set the teachers brain in reverse, which could be dangerous, especially if they started walking backwards. Best we leave things just the way they are, before we have any nasty accidents and next time you decide to change your name, might I suggest you go for Aardvark. It’s very popular in the telephone book.
However, I’m not writing to you to discuss the alphabet, other than to apologise for getting to you so late in the peace and you’ll only have one day to join us on the journey, where we’ve been visiting Dead Artists from A-Z. Quite a few of these artists were influenced by Japanese art, so even though you stuck to more of a traditional Japanese style yourself, you might find it interesting to see how it’s been applied over in Europe by the likes of Edgar Degas and Van Gogh. By the way, you and Van Gogh are both into sunflowers in a big way, and they could be the start of a great friendship. Van Gogh was trying to set up an artists community in Arles in the South of France so maybe you could both join up with Gauguin and set something up near a dazzling field of sunflowers. Indeed, you might want to visit the festival in Zama city, Kanagawa prefecture. They have 30 different species of sunflower so you’re bound to find at least one which inspires you.
“I write, erase, rewrite,
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms”
Focus, Rowena. Focus.
Thank goodness Issa whispered in my ear again…
“A world of dew,
And within every drewdrop
A world of struggle”
Shibata, I wanted to ask you why there is so much struggle, tragedy and heartache in our world. So many of the artists in this series have suffered enormous grief, sometimes through the loved ones they’ve tragically or prematurely lost, but many have also experienced a grief, a sadness, an inner torment which is simply the storm within. I know and understand that we can’t be happy all the time and that we need the interaction between misery and joy, happiness and sorrow to be able to experience joy much more intensely, but why does growth have to hurt so much?
A Letter From Shibata Zeshin.
The weight of the world isn’t on your shoulders, Rowena. It is carried by the cranes. Leave them to it.
I’m not sure if anyone’s immune to suffering. But the world is also overflowing with such beauty. When your heart is heavy, turn your eyes outward and see creation all around you. Don’t let it slip through your fingertips. Yet, don’t hold onto it too tightly either or your destroy it. Simply hold it in the palm of your hand. Or, watch it through that camera lens of yours and absorb each and every particle until you’re one.
Many people used to tell me I did things my own way, which is why they called me “Zeshin” and it stuck. Do you really think there could be a way of planting sunflowers in people’s heads? Technology is so advanced in your world, anything’s possible. I just heard Van Gogh asking Gauguin to “Beam me up, Scotty” and he disappeared. I’m going next.
Anyway, I’ll leave you with another Haiku…
With dewdrops dripping,
I wish somehow I could wash
this perishing world
References & Links