Perhaps, I should wait until the morning to launch into writing to Guo Xi and focusing on one of his most famous works Early Spring, dated 1072. It’s well after midnight and you know how it is when you’re having a great time and you find someone you really connect with…you don’t want to leave. Indeed, I don’t feel I’ll ever quite leave Andrew Wyeth and Christina’s World behind me. We are one.
Yet, one of the hurdles inherent in this challenge, is to move on. Not to get bogged down at one station along the way. Rather, the train needs to keep moving. Well, I wonder if I can take all my other artists with me, and create something of an Arty Party, not unlike the Elvis Train called The Blue Suede Express which heads out to the Parkes Elvis Festival, in far West NSW. I don’t know who we’d put in charge of designing and painting the outside of the train. Indeed, we’d probably have to pick names out of a hat. There might be a bit of competition, not to a mention stylistic debate. I couldn’t imagine Jackson Pollock and Norman Lindsay sharing a seat, let painting the same carriage. I need to consult my seating app and see who is sitting where. Of course, they’d have to sit in alphabetical order, although I could see some tricksters mixing up the place tags. They always do.
Anyway, without further ado, we’re moving onto Guo Xi (郭熙, ca.1020–1090), a Chinese landscape painter from Wenxian in Henan province who lived during the Northern Song dynasty. Just to put that into perspective, he died 928 years ago and I think he’s our second oldest artist, if you can think about it like that. Inspired by his Snow Mountain, Xi will be accompanied by Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King.
Guo Xi served as a court painter under Emperor Shenzong (reigned 1068–1085). Early in his career as an artist, Guo Xi painted large screens and walls for major palaces and halls in the capital that had caught the emperor’s attention. Guo was later promoted to the highest position of Painter-in-Attendance in the court Hanlin Academy of Painting. He produced many monumental landscape paintings, and specialized in painting large pine trees and scenery enveloped in mist and clouds. He employed “curled cloud” texture strokes (卷雲皴) for mountain slopes, while he did trees in “crab claw (蟹爪)” forms to create a style of his own. Being a court professional, he developed an incredibly detailed system of idiomatic brushstrokes which became important for later painters. His most famous work is Early Spring, dated 1072. The work demonstrates his innovative techniques for producing multiple perspectives which he called “the angle of totality.”-China Online Museum
Guo Xi was often referred to as a “Northern Song master” when it came to painting. His work inspired many later artists and he even had landscapes dedicated to him. His lesser-known “Deep Valley” scroll painting depicted a serene mountain valley covered with snow and several trees struggling to survive on precipitous cliffs. The ink washes and amorphous brush strokes are employed to model surfaces that suggest the veiling effects of the atmosphere. One of Guo Xi’s techniques was to layer ink washes to build up forms and his “Deep Valley” is a masterpiece of the use of light ink and magnificent composition. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guo_Xi
One of his most famous works is Early Spring, dated 1072. The work demonstrates his innovative techniques for producing multiple perspectives which he called “the angle of totality.” This type of visual representation is also called “Floating Perspective”, a technique which displaces the static eye of the viewer and highlights the differences between Chinese and Western modes of spatial representation.Xi developed an innovative technique, called “Floating Perspective” or “Angle of the Totality”, with which the artist was able to represent multiple perspectives within a single painting. This is an exceptional advance that did not appear in Western painting until many centuries later. Moreover, it’s also interesting when you compare it to the efforts of Renaissance artists like Da Vinci towards linear perspective. As I mentioned before, I can barely park my car in a straight line, so linear perspective is not my thing. I’ll just have to count on the wisdom of others.
His son later described how Guo Xi approached his work: “On days when he was going to paint, he would seat himself at a clean table, by a bright window, burning incense to right and left. He would choose the finest brushes, the most exquisite ink; wash his hands, and clean the ink-stone, as though he were expecting a visitor of rank. He waited until his mind was calm and undisturbed, and then began.”2.
Gao Xi clearly had an incredible eye and appreciation for the details of the landscape, including how it transitioned from season to season. In his “Treatise on Mountains and Waters (山水訓)”, he wrote:
“The clouds and the vapors of real landscapes are not the same in the four seasons. In spring they are light and diffused, in summer rich and dense, in autumn scattered and thin, and in winter dark and solitary. When such effects can be seen in pictures, the clouds and vapors have an air of life. The mist around the mountains is not the same in the four seasons. The mountains in spring are light and seductive as if smiling; the mountains in summer have a blue-green color which seems to be spread over them; the mountains in autumn are bright and tidy as if freshly painted; the mountains in winter are sad and tranquil as if sleeping.”
So, not only are his painting touchingly beautiful, but also his prose.
So, without further ado, here’s my letter to Guo Xi.
Letter to Guo Xi
I can’t help wondering where you’re from and wanting to find those mountains you’ve immortalised in your paintings. Not that I can climb them myself, but perhaps I could at least admire them from the ground, the same way we marvel at the stars. Well, that is if we actually take the time out to look for them. Or, indeed, if the sky isn’t too polluted to block their light. Isn’t it terrible that the machines of man have blackened out the stars and the heavens? Indeed, we’ve even tried to tame the mountains, although the big ones still put up a fight.
I’d love to sit on top of a mountain and just look up at the stars, the moon and feel that clarity all around me. That nothing else matters. You can just sit on your rock and just be. The cares of the world are all taking care of themselves on autopilot without us.
I guess I should be careful what I wish for because more than one intrepid explorer has climbed their own mountain, and found nobody left when they came home. They didn’t like being left on hold while they explored other realms without them.
So, Xi, I could see myself on top of your mountain now with my husband, the kids and three dogs in tow. I just hope they don’t have any sticks up there. We’re already regretting to teach the dogs how to fetch. Hopefully, they too could benefit from a bit o stillness and they might even find their inner dog.
A Letter From Guo Xi
Thank you so much for your letter. I have been here for such a long time withut any communication from the earth so I was very happy.
You must be careful when you climb the big mountains. The greatest danger isn’t climbing up or climbing down. It’s how to continue living with your fellow man in day to day life when you have known such peace and freedom. There is no tick of the clock and you are in your own time zone in your own world. I almost went mad with all the talk of chickens, what to eat for dinner, a hole in the roof. I didn’t care for these things anymore. Wanted to return to the mountains. They were calling me. But I have wife, son. Must stay. Keep my pictures in my head and paint them with my inks.
As much as I would like to go back to my mountains, I will do that in my head. Too much change. Time not stand still. Almost 1000 years. Memory better.
Still we must climb and conquer our metaphysical mountains. Don’t let them build up across our path to block the track. No good. You need to get your shovel out and move the dirt before the mountain gets too big. Can’t get moved. You get strong shoveling dirt. You only get flattened when the mountain buries you.
PS I had to share a comment I found re Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. “The first part of the song is when you’re sitting in the exam hall, just writing and sitting in silence while you think “I’ve got two hours left”. The second part of the song is when the examiner suddenly says “Five minutes”. So true.
References & Links
- Quoted by Arthur Waley in “Chinese Philosophy of Art-IV” in Burlington Magazine, vol. xxxviii, No. ccxviii, p. 247 in Jenyns, Soame. A Background to Chinese Painting. New York: Schocken Books, 1966, p. 134
Wishing everyone a Happy Father’s Day and thoughts to everyone you is missing their Dad today and everyday.
“We have all been hypnotized into thinking that we are smaller than we are. Just as an undersized flowerpot keeps a mighty tree root-bound or a little fishbowl keeps goldfish tiny, we have adapted, adjusted, and accommodated to a Lilliputian life. But place the same tree in an open field or the fish in a lake, and they will grow to hundreds of times their size. Unlike the tree or goldfish, you are not dependent on someone else to move you. You have the power to move yourself. You can step into a broader domain and grow to your full potential.”
It’s hard enough to get my kids to smile for the camera. So, I was really stoked when this Japanese carp stared right into the lens, and almost magically, I even managed to capture the ripples in the pond.
Have you ever heard that the size of goldfish, depends on the size of the environment.
“Most times a person grows up gradually, but I found myself in a hurry… Hoping to find an answer, I uncovered an article about the common goldfish. “Kept in a small bowl, the goldfish will remain small. With more space, the fish will double, triple, or quadruple in size.” It occurred to me then that I was intended for larger things. After all, a giant man can’t have an ordinary-sized life.”
A pinch of food for thought.
People often say to me, ‘I don’t know anything about dance.’ I say, ‘Stop. You got up this morning, and you’re walking. You are an expert.’
As you may recall, I’ve been attending a weekly adult dance class for roughly the last year. This has been a huge step for me, because I live with a severe muscle-wasting auto-immune disease as well as hydrocephalus and let’s just say mobility and coordination are not my strengths.
However, as I’ve mentioned, my daughter dances quite seriously and after watching countless open days, concerts and at times having serious difficulties getting her to class, I started getting sick of being stuck in the driver’s seat. I wanted to dance myself.
My motto – sans limites.
Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.
At first, I started dancing in my head and was amazed by my grace, poise and ability to jeter across the room.
Well, to be honest, it wasn’t exactly me. Taking a leaf out of the bower bird’s book, I sub-consciously “borrowed” or perhaps you could even say, that I moved into Miss Larissa’s feet and became a legend inside my own head.
That’s when I first started feeling like a dancer, even though I was unable to dance and to be perfectly honest, often struggled to walk, especially on public footpaths, which are forever trying to trip me up. In what felt like a very bold leap at the time, I gingerly approached my daughter’s teacher and confessed. Naturally, this felt rather “weird” and I wondered if I’d finally tipped the scales of madness to the point of no return. Dancing was light years away from “me”…a writer, photographer and someone living with a chronic illness.
So, it was from this very tentative and reticent corner of the room, that I arrived at my first adult ballet class fully expecting to spend most of the night sitting in a chair. From where I sat, this wasn’t so much a position of defeat. Rather, even being in the room as a class member was an achievement and it felt incredible just to be a part of the inner sanctum. As I didn’t know what to expect of myself, I simply hoped to have beautiful, ballet hands at the end of the six week course.
While I clearly didn’t have much in the way of personal expectations, even turning up was brave and courageous. That being there in itself, represented a huge gear shift I could be proud of. After all, wasn’t most of the world parked in front of their TV, computer or mobile phone screens, while I was stepping out and being challenged by something completely out of my realm.
Sometimes, you deserve a bit of praise and enthusiastic applause simply for getting out of bed. and if you make it out the front door that’s a bonus.
That’s where I was coming from. So, my expectations of being able to dance weren’t great.
So, you could just imagine my delight when I was somewhat keeping up with the class. That I didn’t spend the entire class in a chair and wasn’t as uncoordinated as I’d thought. After all, there’s nothing like a bit of brain surgery and tinkering away in your head to get the cogs moving.
Those early nights of adult ballet classes, almost feel like a dream a year down the track. I’ve since done two short contemporary/lyrical classes under Miss Karina Russell. She’s not only been teaching us about dance and choreography, she’s taken us on a journey through various choreographic styles and given me something to Google when I get home. I was as proud as punch of my research and the growing list of dance quotes I’d compiled, until she asked me if I’d actually watch them dance. Of course, not. Yes, I was still very much the writer and researcher than a dancer…a woman of action. Yet, it was still early days.
Last night, we had our last contemporary class for the time being and next term, we’re switching to tap. So, last night was special and a bit like performing at the end of year concert. I wanted to put my best feet forward and perfect our routine. Or, at least, be facing the right direction at the right time.
However, after going on our long walk on Sunday and obviously overdoing it round the house yesterday, my systems were overstretched and I couldn’t get it together. For the very first time, I was struggling with left and right as we attempted pirouettes, and was facing all the wrong directions doing our warm ups and stretches. This was so bad and as much as I laughed it off, there was also that frustrated, annoyed dancer stuck inside me trying so hard to get out, yet battling the mortal realm.
Why couldn’t I have dance feet? A dance brain? I was feeling like someone had switched all the wires over and when I meant to go left, I went right. Or, I just ended up in a mental knot…a spin which was anything but a shanay turn.
Aside from the fatigue, there was another sound explanation for my brain-body confusion.
While watching Miss Karina so intently, I was absorbing her moves as my own and couldn’t understand why my body wouldn’t cooperate. Why didn’t my foot point like that. Why couldn’t I stand on one leg while rotating my hands and foot without wobbling and falling over like a house of cards? It was like I was having some kind of massive computational error…Miss Karina in, Rowena out. There was a definite bug in the program!
However, I’m not that hard on myself that I didn’t know I was tired. That I wasn’t dancing at my best. Or, that Miss Karina not only has natural talent, she’s also worked exceptionally hard for a very long time. As she will testify, there’s no fairy Godmother and no magic wand either.
“Destiny, quite often, is a determined parent. Mozart was hardly some naive prodigy who sat down at the keyboard and, with God whispering in his ears, let music flow from his fingertips. It’s a nice image for selling tickets to movies, but whether or not God has kissed your brow, you still have to work. Without learning and preparation, you won’t know how to harness the power of that kiss.”
― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Yet, I am simply grateful to be a part of it, find acceptance even on an off night, and to be able to see Miss Karina dance up close and appreciate all the detail that goes into being a brilliant dancer. Not only for my own benefit, but also for my daughter. Since I’ve been doing these adult dance classes, we’ve been able to share a common language and last weekend when I saw her draw a semi-circle in the sand with a pointed foot, I knew exactly what she was doing.
“Think of the magic of that foot, comparatively small, upon which your whole weight rests. It’s a miracle, and the dance is a celebration of that miracle.”
“My feet are dogs”.
So, last night at the end of our class, I lined everyone up for a few photos. I’ve really been hanging out to photograph all our feet. While this might seem strange, for me our diverse range of footwear reflects who we are. There were socks, joggers, toe shoes, jazz shoes… as well as me wearing my pink satin ballet slippers with the satin ribbons to a contemporary class. We are a motley crew who take our dance seriously and work hard. Yet, there’s also this constant laughter, good humour, fun personalities as well as the joy of belonging and being part of the dance, which is an incredible feeling all by itself.
I don’t know why more creatives don’t cross-train and do some painting, dance, try some artistic photography with an SLR instead of their “camera phone”. While cross-training has become standard for athletes, I get that sense that creatives are still very much absorbed by their thing and it’s a rare soul who ventures beyond the usual streams which go together. In the performing arts, you hear about being the “triple threat”. That means you can dance, sing and act. Yet, I’m not aware of an equivalent term for someone who can write, do photography and say graphic design.
There’s so much to be gained from stepping beyond our comfort zones and what we’re naturally good at and enjoy. Instead of every writer writing about what it means to be a writer, you can write about the exhilaration of dance from an inside perspective instead. You’re not just a voyeur watching life pass by through the keyhole. You’re living it too.
That is, even if you’ve only got duck feet.
Do you dance?
As a writer and creative, are you meant to go down the direct route, immediately producing that book in record-breaking time? Or, is so-called “procrastination” part of the creative process…a required element to add to the quality and longevity of your work?After all, as creative guru John Lennon once said: “Life is lived while busy making other plans”.
These contradictions often go into battle at the back of my head and I’m constantly coming across this tension in other writers as well.
Recently, I was reminded of this tension reading this quote by Moliere:
“The trees that are slow to grow, bear the best fruit.”
However, is this true? Or, is it just a nice saying?
I consulted the Google oracle to see what its great wisdom revealed and found this research report by Bryan Black, an assistant professor of forestry at Oregon State University, who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. His research shows that even within a species, the oldest trees grow the slowest, even as youngsters.
“Faster growing trees may put all of their energy into growth and burn out before they can achieve really old age,” he said. “Slow-growing trees may invest a lot in producing strong wood and defense mechanisms against insects and disease and never rise above the forest canopy.”
Rapidly growing trees may occupy space more quickly, reach sexual maturity earlier, and are more prone to frequent, catastrophic disturbances, including flood, fire and windstorms, Black said. They also die at a younger age. Meanwhile, the slower growing trees channel their energy into structural support and defense compounds, don’t burn out from reproducing, and slowly-but-surely outpace their mercurial cousins.http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2009/feb/study-finds-oldest-trees-grow-slowest-%E2%80%93-even-youngsters
So, this research suggests slow and steady ultimately wins the race. Well, that is, if being a long-lived tree is your goal.
While I feel pressured to get that book out there, I have benefited from taking the extra time. I have grown so much as writer through the hours I am putting into my blog and have found my voice. Even more importantly, I have been dialoguing and chatting with my readers, while also reading and responding to their work. Through these exchanges, I’ve been unconsciously fine tuning my story. It might be taking me longer to write the book and it might even be taking me away from it, but I know that what I’ll write now will be much more relevant. It has to be. After all, I’ve spent the last 4 years listening as well as writing. Moreover, being able to hear readers before I write the book project, has to be revolutionary.
However, it takes a lot of courage to take your time writing the book. There’s so much pressure to publish just to gain any kind of credibility. You’re not a real writer until you’ve actually published the book…any book!
Yet, isn’t the ultimate credibility writing something worth reading? Writing something which changes your readers lives and minds and inspires them in some way? I’m sure that doesn’t happen overnight just like quality plants don’t mature overnight either.
Indeed, we’ve all seen backyard domination by the mighty weed. Is that what we want from our modern literature?
So, while I think there is a place for writing, writing, writing and getting that book out ASAP, I’m still a believer in “slow and steady wins the race”. That the tortoise will ultimately take out the hare but the tortoise still needs to make it through to the finish line.
That’s something I need to work a lot harder on.
What are your thoughts?
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Thanks to Dr Gulara Vincent for reminding me of this quote. I am going to print this out and give it to my kids.
Have you found any inspirational quotes lately? Please share!
Featured Image: Rowena Curtin.