The Group of Seven are well known in Canada, but ask any one to name an individual artist within this group and chances are you’ll draw a blank. Ironically, the two artists that most readily come to mind, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr, were not members of the Group, though close friends with those who were. Thomson was murdered before the group was officially formed and Carr was never invited to join.
This blog is about overlooked talents. The person I’d like to feature is Thoreau Macdonald, named after the famous 19th century naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. Macdonald’s father was J.E.H. Macdonald, one of the original Group of Seven, a landscape painter noted for his dazzling colour. Incredibly his son Thoreau was color blind. He compensated for this by working exclusively in black and white as a book and magazine illustrator. TM (Thoreau Macdonald) often worked on catalogues promoting other artists for which he created punchy graphic images. These black and whites often mimic the style of the featured artist.
My wife just asked me, are these images woodblock prints? No, they’re done in pen and ink to look like woodblocks–they are “fake woodblocks.” TM eschews the intricate cross hatching that gives many illustrations a range of tones and a heightened sense of realism. Extreme contrasts, varied mark-making techniques and beautiful designs contribute to TM’s unique style.
Birds and animals are often included in these landscapes. TM is one of the first Canadian artists to do this and, in this respect, he anticipates Robert Bateman and Alex Colville. TM’s animals are not symbols or decorative abstractions, but embody a life presence of their own. These curious explorers actively interact with other species in an ecological time capsule. There is a strong sense of season and locale. In the picture below, it’s spring time; the hungry bear has awoken from a long sleep. He uses his great strength to tear apart a tree stump as he searches for grubs. A vigilant bird hovers in the background, awaiting his chance to swoop in and clean up the left-overs. The image contrasts the hugeness of the bear with the smallness of the bird and the low dead stump with the springy young trees beyond. There are visible creatures (bear and bird) and invisible but implied creatures (the grubs). No distinction between land and sky: a white day.
How beautifully the arch of the tree branch frames the fox, giving the sense that he is earthbound, while the birds, so much on his mind, are safely out of reach. How effective is the white of the page as a field of snow! The snow half hides the old tree in the aftermath of a storm. Life is just beginning to emerge and take a peek around for signs of other life.
Here is another deceptively simple display of whiteness. The image is so bright it almost hurts your eyes! There is a principle in Asian art that there should be a balance between what’s drawn on the page and what’s left empty on the page. TM is a wizard of knowing what not to draw. What’s more, his empty space gives a tangible sense of distance. Fence posts and trees, drawn in perspective, act as a giant funnel guiding the figures home.
Here’s a cycle of life, cycle of seasons. Reminds me of Ozymandias. The heroic and the humble. Stones, skull and island are shapes that echo one another–looks like the caribou is turning to stone before our eyes as the rocks crowd in on the remains of the fallen animal. The horns function like the branches of a tree, a convenient perch for a bird positioned midway between the arrowhead in the cloud and the nervous current to the water. As in many of Thoreau’s images, the bird stands and watches. He is a sentient being in a wild setting, a silent witness to nature’s changes.
With their romantic vision of the Canadian landscape, the Group of Seven portrayed nature as strong, resilient and wild. They equated the land, its dense growth of trees through the changes of seasons, and vast waterways, with the youthful nation: a site of promise and possibility.
But the group were very much artists of their time, involved in the currents and paradoxes of their time. For instance, they were city-based artists who painted landscapes devoid of people. Much of their training and income derived from commercial assignments. These image-makers of wild spaces started their careers in a small office in Toronto, creating ads selling such things as women’s underwear, hair products and army recruitment posters. Is it high art or commercial art that best reflects the changes happening around us? The answer, of course, is both. And the Group of Seven were deeply involved in both.
The above ads demonstrate how fashion moved away from turn-of-the-century corsets and bustle skirts to the loose-fitting dresses and hatless bob-haired styles of the flapper era. In a short span of twenty years, a world war raged and women gained the right to vote. A revolution of prosperity, driven by machines, international trade and urban life was well underway. Modern art, with its love of innovation, reflected this global transformation.
Just how modern were the Group of Seven artists? Most of the artists are best described as restless, moving about from job to job, often travelling and painting on the fly. Some members of the group had studied art in Europe, some fought in the war or were involved in war-time messaging. Through their day jobs in advertising, members of the group were steeped in post impressionism, art nouveau and other modernist trends. Working on weekends in rented cottages, taking countless train rides from Toronto to Algonquin Park and beyond, their working methods forced them to paint with speed and spontaneity. As travel artists, they fancied themselves pioneers of a new path, throwing off centuries of dull tradition in favour of a more daring and personal vision. This is the very spirit of modernism.
Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was born just 10 years after Confederation. He was influenced by a great nation-building project. The expansion of industry and spread of the railway allowed him and his fellow artists access to remote areas. Thomson was an anomaly in almost every way. He was 27 years old when he first picked up a paintbrush, 39 years old when he died. One of the most likeable members of the group, his life ended in a wholly unexpected quarrel with an unstable man who he thought was his friend.
This leads us to the first paradox of the Group of Seven: Tom Thomson was a Pacifist who refused to participate in the horrors of World War 1. Instead he retreated to the safety and isolation of a provincial park in northern Ontario, where he was promptly murdered. In true Canadian fashion, this loss is too cruel for us, so we call Thomson’s death a mystery. Before the Group of Seven had officially formed, which wouldn’t happen until 1920, they had lost their most gifted member. Thomson’s long shadow follows the group as they search for artistic identity.
The group’s journey intersects with another important trend: the national parks movement. It starts in the United States and Canada follows suit. From the start, Canadians are conflicted over the purpose of their national parks. Are these protected spaces meant for recreation, conservation, or the development of industry? Some members of the Group of Seven were avid campers and woodsmen, others not so much. But in their art, they come together in a shared vision of the country, using daring colours (no more dull green and brown landscapes for them!) and thick dabs of paint that give the images a fresh and vibrant look.
The Group of Seven was assisted financially by the most energetic member of the group, Lawren Harris and his friend, Dr. James MacCallum. These two constructed a building in Toronto, which they divided into studios and rented out to their artist friends at an affordable rate. Tom Thomson lived rent-free in a small cottage in the back. Harris and MacCallum also arranged for exhibitions and trips to northern Ontario. Harris’s wealth came from the Massey Harris company, which sold modern tractors to farmers around the world.
In the second paradox of the Group of Seven, the Massey Harris farm equipment revolutionized agriculture, bringing with it all the rewards of mechanized, big-scale industry, but at an unexpected cost. No one was aware of it at the time, but one of the consequences of industrial agriculture, with its deep plowing and soil disruption, is erosion and the inability of land to hold water. In times of drought, uncovered soil turns to dust and blows off in huge destructive clouds, leaving great tracts of land in a state of ruin. This is what happened during the Dustbowl of the 1930s. These drought-ridden farms are one of the indelible symbols of the Great Depression.
The glorious images of wilderness abundance that the Group of Seven specialized in were no longer relevant for a time of deprivation and environmental disaster. It is no coincidence that this is exactly the moment, the 1930s, when the Group disbanded.
A few of the artists became teachers and continued to exert influence on a younger generation. But with the arrival of the Second World War, their time had passed and new styles took over. However, in our national museums, the Group of Seven has gained status equivalent to a gold standard. They were, after all, Canada’s first homegrown art movement and remain among our best known and most popular artists with public and collectors.
Whatever happened to the halo in art? Round glowing disks, either full body or framing the head, used to signify holy figures. The Buddha pictured above sits before a glowing screen with flames shooting off at the edges. The fire signifies enlightenment. Above right, Shiva, Lord of Destruction and Transformation, dances in a ring of fire–the never-ending cycle of time.
Fires, as in the Blake image above, can signify destruction or punishment. Brilliant light like that enveloping the figure of Christ in Raphael’s Transfiguration can signify God-like powers.
Halos appear in different religious traditions. In this image from ancient Egypt, Ra, the Sun God, wears a red disc as a crown and holds the ankh, symbol of life. Beside him sits Amentet, goddess of death, to guide the soul of the deceased in the afterlife.
Can you identify this kissing couple? Each has a halo, but the halos crush together into a heart shape as the old man and woman kiss. Art critic Tom Lubbock describes the kiss as two egg yokes merging together. The painting is by Giotto. The image depicts the meeting of Joachim and Anne at the City Gate in Jerusalem, a fresco created in 1305 for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Why are the couple so happy? They’ve lived long lives without children and now an angel has announced they are about to be parents for the first time. Their child, of course, will be the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. My interpretation: grandparents are important.
As art becomes more secular, the halo motif shifts from the field of religion to the field of politics. King Louis XIV of France called himself the Sun King and made a sunburst emblem with his own portrait to reinforce this idea. The emblem was stamped on everything that belonged to Louis, including his artillery. The head of the famous Statue of Liberty wears a similar celestial crown with dramatic sun spikes. The torch in her uplifted hand reinforces this idea of a human beacon.
Halos follow money and there’s money in pop culture and advertising. In 2017, Beyoncé performed at the Grammys in a Peter Dundas gown and House of Malakai headdress that featured a halo crown. The Sun Maid logo has been used to sell raisins since 1912. It seems it’s not enough that we want instantly catchy music and quick tasty snacks, we want to believe there’s some inner goodness to these things as well.
Why is Big Pharma selling drugs and putting halos around them? There’s a drug called Haloperidol, which is used for severe behavior problems in hyperactive children. Parents wishing they could turn problem children into angels. As drugs become the solution to all our problems, drug salesmen become shapers of public belief–the new priests and guardians of holy fire.
Lively festivals, bright costumes, glamorous women and eager crowds–welcome to the floating world of the Yoshiwara! This is Edo’s pleasure district, the Las Vegas and Montmartre of 18th century Japan. If you were a visitor to such an event, what better souvenir than a woodblock print by a popular Japanese artist?
The shishi-mai or Lion Dance, pictured above, is often performed at New Year’s celebrations. Dancers and musicians on the left entertain the crowd, wearing their holiday best, on the right. One woman carries an infant on her back, while a mother comforts her frightened child in the foreground. At centre, an aristocrat watches under the shade of an umbrella.
Utamaro takes a different approach to the same dance, right above, as a sake-drinking courtesan gets a close view of the performers. These images record events from the Niwaka Festival in Edo. Niwaka translates as ‘spontaneous’ because of its origins as impromptu street performances by courtesans and geishas looking to boost business. Over time, the Festival, held on the 8th lunar month, became a regular event including processions, floats, skits and dances. Performers of both sexes wore elaborate costumes (frequently cross-gender) and carried painted fans to signal the subject of their play. During the festival, access to the pleasure quarters was open to all, giving women and families a rare opportunity to enjoy the spectacle of the Yoshiwara. (Info from Kiyoshi Shibui, Ukiyo-e Zuten: Utamaro, 1964 and Gina Collia-Suzuki, The Complete Woodblock Prints of Kitagawa Utamaro, A Descriptive Catalogue, 2009)
Utamaro has idealized himself painting this mural for the Niwaka Festivities. The artist was reputed to be overweight and homely, a Hitchcock-like figure, who, like the famous film director, depicted beautiful women with more grace and style than any of his rivals. In the above image, Utamaro decorates an interior with a painting of a ‘ho-o’ bird, watched by curious courtesans. The bird is a fantastical amalgam of different parts and is sometimes referred to as King of Birds or Fenghuang. It’s meant to amuse, to delight, to astonish with its imaginative extravagance. (Reference: The British Museum)
Carp-shaped wind socks mark a children’s holiday in Japan’s largest city. Hiroshige has created a startling effect by choosing a high angle, with the city landmarks receding in convincing perspective. The tail of the fish touches the river, giving the sense that it has leaped over the distant Fuji high into the sky.
The significance of the banners is explained in this note from the Brooklyn Museum: “Without the three immense carp banners, this view would have been a classic depiction of samurai Edo, looking southwest over the densest concentration of samurai households, from Surugadai on the left through Banchō in the distance. The banners and streamers indicate that the time is the Boy’s Festival, the fifth day of the Fifth Month. The three carp are standards used by commoners in imitation of the military streamers, which they were prohibited from flying. The banners drew on a Chinese legend of a fish so strong that it could leap a waterfall—an image considered an inspiring legend for young boys.”
Often images that record festive themes, also showcase pretty young women, in this case, posing with doll and child. Take note of the elaborate coiffure of the woman on the left. To appreciate how much effort goes into such a look, the Art Institute of Chicago created a video called Recreating Ukiyo-e Hairstyles. In the picture with the boy, a fish-shaped flag, the same as in the Hiroshige, appears in a circle beside the vertical banners.
Does anything beat a celebrity’s arrival on the red carpet or catwalk, as advertisement for trend-setting fashion? Think Met Gala to get an idea of the impact of parading ôirans in 19th century Japan. The print, top left, depicts the courtesan Nagatô wearing a dazzling tiger costume. Art historian John Fiorillo comments: “Nagatô is on public display during a promenade in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. It is early spring, as she walks beneath a flowering cherry tree enclosed by a bamboo fence on Yoshiwara’s main street, the Naka-no-chô (“Middle Street”).”
“Many spectators would come not only to enjoy the blossoming trees,” Fiorillo comments, “but also to sit in the upper stories of teahouses to view the colorful spectacle of parading courtesans … Nagatô’s robes and accessories are of the most elaborate and expensive type for the period. Six tortoise-shell hairpins jut out on either side of her coiffure, and a large obi is tied in front. Most spectacular, of course, is the pattern of a fierce tiger standing on rocks amidst a waterfall. Such kimono were prohibitively expensive, affordable by only the highest ranking courtesans (gifts from wealthy patrons).”
The Kabuki theatres in the pleasure district offered entertainments that ran all day. Actor prints were one of the first genres of ukiyo-e: records of stirring performances, mementos for fans and ads for shows. The prints often depict actors in frozen poses, struck at dramatic moments in as showy a manner as possible. The brilliant and enigmatic Sharaku broke this pattern by concentrating on close-ups of actors’ heads.
Sharaku may have had the shortest art career on record, a scant ten months. Little is known of the artist or why his output of prints ended so abruptly. One theory is that his portraits were a little too scathing and gave offence to powerful people who shut him down. What makes Sharaku’s prints so brilliant is that he captures both a likeness of the actor in caricature, as well as defining the actor’s role. In the image top right, Sharaku depicts an actor playing a villainous servant, grasping, frowning, eyebrows furrowed in intense concentration. The conception is bold, dynamic and conveys character with graphic immediacy.
Japanese ukiyo-e inspired and is often compared with 19th century French art. When we look at the two traditions side by side, similarities leap off the page: flat colours, compressed spaces, contemporary subject matter, interest in a demi-monde situated in a pleasurable world of escapist fantasy.The prints record a thriving commercial pop culture. Both Utamaro and Lautrec display a racy wit: Utamaro compares a barmaid to a classical poet; Lautrec compares the curve of the bass instrument with the gentleman’s cane. The gentleman has the attitude of a predator more interested in the young lady than the musical performance. Both images are mass produced prints appealing to a middle class audience.
In these images, we see a seductive side to modernity, with the ascendancy of popular culture centred on celebrities and entertainment, the rapid dissemination of news and gossip, the intermixing of classes, the explosion of print material, innovative fashion and art that breaks with tradition in order to reflect the spontaneity of contemporary life with all its amusements and sexual attractions.
The wind rustles flower blossoms. A nearby butterfly adds motion, scale and drama to this mini-universe.
This is an example of Kacho-e: Japanese bird, flower and insect pictures. According to notes from the Ronin Gallery, the genre reflects Shinto and Buddhist value for the natural world. Scholars suspect the image alludes to the legend of Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who awoke from a dream and remarked, “I don’t know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”
Here is another striking instance of scale, where a cluster of flowers feels like a jungle to the half hidden grasshopper.
Speaking of camouflage, can you spot the frog?
Hokusai is a master of details, but makes the viewer work to find them.
How does the artist distinguish sky from ground?
Through overlapping scattered tracks, Hokusai gives a sense of bird behaviour as well as appearance. The detailed feet and tail feathers contrast with the solid black of the fowl’s body. Tucked head and one eye add to the furtive quality of a bird that’s rarely still.
Are these turtles above or below water? This image of mother and baby turtle is enlivened by a current that passes right through their bodies. There is a marvellous feeling of floating, tranquility, harmony of large and small, old and young, animal and environment. In the drawing on the right, the frog, snail and insects have bodies coiled for motion. They’re ready to jump, crawl, climb or fly as they manoeuvre for space on the crowded page.
A great number of Hokusai’s drawings of animals are fantastic or imaginary. This playful image of a lion dancer hints at a favourite Hokusai theme: the transformation from one state to another.
The above image illustrates the parable of blind men examining different parts of an elephant’s body. One man feels the tusk and declares it’s a knife. Another man examines the tail and concludes it’s a rope. A third man feels a leg and is certain it’s a pillar. A fourth man feels the trunk and announces it’s a snake. The story is a cautionary tale to beware faulty first impressions, especially the hasty judgments of self-appointed experts. Substitute a work of art for the elephant and art critics for the blind men and you have a contemporary political statement. Hokusai has drawn a particularly old massive elephant, his ears worn and frayed, his eyes wrinkled and sad, yet the creature shows great forbearance and a gentle spirit. He reminds me of Hokusai, the old man who keeps drawing despite all outward circumstances.
Katsushika Hokusai’s series of travel prints, 36 Views of Mt. Fuji, 1830-32, was so popular, so critically acclaimed, there was demand for a sequel. But not so fast, the younger artist Utagawa Hiroshige published his dazzling series of travel images, 56 Stations of the Tokaido, 1833-34, putting pressure on his rival to do more than just repeat himself.
Hokusai responded with his most ambitious project, 100 Views of Mt. Fuji, 1834-35. It was a book of woodblock prints, published in three volumes, using only black and one or two shades of grey ink. Whereas the 36 Views, printed in full colour, represented real places, with recognizable landmarks and features, the 100 Views largely dispensed with place names. These landscapes of the imagination, meticulously rendered, made use of closely observed details gathered over a lifetime of travel and study.
In a great many cases, the details come from Hokusai’s sketchbooks, his Manga, which he published in 15 volumes from 1814-32. The Manga contain drawings of every imaginable subject. Compare the two drawings above. In the initial drawing it is much clearer that the dragon figure is an ornament attached to a roof. We are shown roof tiles and a ladder, which takes us high above the ground. The dragon is conceived as a sea monster, with fish tail, scales and fins. It is an absurd fish out of water, monstrous and humorous at the same time, but exquisitely balanced with a beautiful curve to its body. In the drawing this body opposes the curve of Fuji and hangs in the air free of the mountain’s mass. In the print, the dragon’s body is encased by the mountain (as if the dragon receives its life energy from the mountain) and the curving shapes align. The dragon is larger in the print and the humour is heightened with the addition of a bird perched on the dragon’s tail, making him seem not quite so frightful after all.
Here is another example from the Manga. Was this scene of storm waves and water crashing on rocks something that Hokusai observed or is he making it all up out of his head? I suspect both are true: Hokusai observed actual storms, but he used his imagination to create the feeling of a storm. Changing seasons and shifts in the weather help give the 100 Views a sense of time passing and epic journey.
In the image above left, the mountain is barely suggested through sheets of rain, as a procession of travellers recede from view. The image is anticipated earlier in the series when we meet a man selling umbrellas. His display creates a wonderful pattern of overlapping round shapes. As the viewer seeks out Fuji, the collapsed umbrellas in the foreground mimic the mountain’s cone shape and camouflage its presence.
The spider has caught a stray leaf in his web–but it looks as though he’s also caught the mountain. By placing tiny and large together, Hokusai suggests unity to all of nature. Japanese scholar Henry Smith calls this image “visual haiku,” quoting lines from the poet Basho:
Hey spider! How do you sing?
In what key?
Wind of autumn.
I’ve paired this fall scene with a winter scene of a heron perched on the snowy branch of a pine tree. Neither image has a human presence. In the winter picture, Hokusai modified an exercise from Chinese painting: to paint three things all coloured white: usually bird, flower and snow. Hokusai has substituted Fuji for the flower.
In the image right above, Mt. Fuji projects upside down on a screen inside a house (through a tiny hole in the closed window shutters). This is the camera obscura effect. According to Henry Smith, the Japanese were aware of this effect, but didn’t make use of it as a drawing aid as Western artists did before the invention of photography. On the facing page, Hokusai’s shoreline, strewn with seaweed and waves, shows Fuji through a keyhole-shaped opening in a protruding rock.
To add variety to his views, Hokusai included a wide array of human activities. Above left, a man cleans out his well. Right, banners that have been freshly dyed, hang to dry in the open air. One fabric is lifted by a stick to its place on the rack. While no person is shown, human activity is evident. The strips of cloth make the picture seem especially tall like the mountain beyond.
A spreading pine–a dense meandering tree–was said to cover a large area on Mt. Nantai. So large was the tree that priests walked along its branches as part of their spiritual practice. Hokusai has turned this legendary pine tree into a fantastic bridge. A shrine is perched along the way, so high it breaks out of the top border of the picture. In an earlier series of travel pictures, Hokusai had featured famous bridges in Japan, but none as whimsical as this. If Fuji appears small at the bottom, it is because Mt. Nantai was 100 miles distant, the furthest vantage point of all the views.
The above image, called “Fuji with a Hat,” reflects the way weather systems gather at the summit of the mountain. In Hokusai’s mind, it’s as though the mountain supports a burden, just as people and domestic animals carry loads on their backs while fording a river. In the distance, oxen carry lumber, a woman with a hoe carries a baby, the woman behind balances a spinning wheel and bundle. In the foreground, a performer supports his dragon costume.
The 100 Views stretch our notions of what is a landscape. Some of the images illustrate stories and legends. Others make humorous analogies or display a kind of visual haiku. Throughout the series, the terrain changes, the weather changes, occupations change, and our views and perceptions change. It would be foolhardy to resist this change. The way the artist hides his mountain from one image to another feels like a game. Hokusai suggests we are all participants in this game and it’s ours to enjoy.
Katsushika Hokusai, Japan’s greatest artist, was born in 1760. This was the year Suzuki Harunobu introduced the “brocade print,” multi-coloured woodblock printing, setting off a boom of high-quality mass produced ukiyo-e. Hokusai apprenticed at a lucky intersection of new craft, receptive audience, and high standards among competing artists. The capital Edo, with its million inhabitants, was the world’s largest city. Townfolk and visitors sought out images of famous actors, sumo wrestlers and courtesans. Hokusai introduced two new subjects: books of manga–quick sketches of all manner of subjects, often humorous, caught unawares in daily tasks– and landscapes.
Hokusai’s manga may have served as drawing manuals for student artists, but they are as entertaining as instructive. Take the example above. Ghosts interact with a musician and salesman. The salesman hopes to sell a pair of glasses with three lenses to the spectre with three eyes. The long-necked beings waft through the air like smoke from their pipes.
Hokusai worked in the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868. This was a time of stability and prosperity for Japan. The ruling shogun introduced a unique bit of nation building–foreigners were not admitted into Japan and Japanese were not allowed to travel abroad. With their new wealth and free time, people looked to travel within Japan, taking advantage of improved roads and increased safety. Travel books were popular, none more so than Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1832, begun when the artist was 71 years old.
How is a kite like a mountain?
The string of the kite echoes the shape of the mountain’s slope, as do the cluster of city rooftops. But how ephemeral a bending string in the wind is compared to a centuries old mountain! In the foreground, a worker repairing the roof of a fashionable clothing store tosses a bundle of tiles to his companion.
Here is another string that mimics the mountain emerging from the mist. Hokusai is famous for his ingenuity in evoking the motion of waves. He is no less experimental in his concern for sky, cloud and mist effects and how they change with altitude and time of day.
How does this mountain differ from its reflection in the lake?
The mountain is imperfect with its competing peaks and jagged crumbling surface. It’s a dull brown in the summer light. The reflection has a single resplendent peak, the winter’s snow hides all rough edges.
Hokusai’s father was a mirror craftsman, a trade to which Hokusai was exposed at an early age, before chosing art and print-making. Reflections and optical effects often find their way into his images.
What time of day is this?
The mountain glows with first light of morning, as the peak ascends through an opening in the clouds. The design is daring and kinetic: the asymmetry of the slope and mass of its red-hot body balanced by the scuttling motion of the blue-tinged clouds.
Imitation is the sincerest form of robbery. This modern take by Seattle- based artist Yumiko Kayukawa uses creatures from the natural world to suggest an unnatural world of hyper-reality. The appealing design returns ukiyo-e to its origins in pop culture.
French Impressionists loved Hokusai. They copied his subjects and flat colours. They may also have been influenced by his working methods, that is, painting a favourite landmark or object over and over in a series of clever variations. Monet painted cathedrals, haystacks and his garden pond in just this obsessive way. The post-impressionist Paul Cezanne, like Hokusai, choose a mountain as his central subject. In Cezanne’s case, it was Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he depicted a total of 87 times (44 oil paintings, 43 water colours). In a letter to his friend Solari (from Talloires, 23 July 1896), Cezanne wrote: “For a long time I have remained without power, without knowing how to paint the Sainte-Victoire, because I imagined a static shadow, like others who do not look, while, look, the shadow moves, it flees from its centre. Instead of being compressed, it evaporates, becomes fluid, and participates in the air’s breathing.”
In line with Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, is Hermann Hesse’s gem-like novella, Journey to the East (1932). The story begins with a troubled narrator hinting at a glorious adventure that he is not at liberty to disclose fully. Nor could he if he tried because his memory has been impaired over time due to illness and suffering. The narrator, HH, also hints that this life-altering adventure has incurred ridicule by skeptics and by those who have not been exposed to the true story. Thus begins this allegory of a search for meaning and unattainable truth.
My first surprise as a reader was to discover that the journey is not made by an individual but by a group, the mysterious League with its many secrets and ceremonies. Within this group, individuals are encouraged to identify their own specific goals. The narrator comments: “Many members of the League set themselves goals which, although I respected, I could not fully understand. For example, one of them was a treasure-seeker and he thought of nothing else but of winning a great treasure which he called Tao. Still another had conceived the idea of capturing a certain snake to which he attributed magical powers and which he called Kundalini. My own journey and life goal, which had coloured my dreams since my late boyhood, was to see the beautiful Princess Fatima and, if possible, to win her love.”
These are the treasure of the East: Chinese philosophy, Indian medicine, and Arabian fable. The journey is fantastic, the language ecstatic and playful:
“One of the most beautiful experiences was the League’s celebrations in Bremgarten; the magic circle surrounded us closely there. Received by Max and Tilli, the lords of the castle, we heard Othmar play Mozart on the grand piano in the lofty hall. We found the grounds occupied by parrots and other talking birds … I shall always remember how Don Quixote stood alone under the chestnut tree by the fountain and held his first night watch while the last Roman candles of the firework display fell so softly over the castle’s turrets in the moonlight, and my colleague Pablo, adorned with roses, played the Persian reed-pipe to the girls.” (p 52)
Euphoria quickly turns to despair. “There was nothing else left for me to do but to satisfy my last desire: to let myself fall from the edge of the world into the void – to death.” The quest is not as easy or straightforward as it seemed. As HH loses his way, he starts to doubt himself and loses the ability to communicate with others. He seeks help, but ends up being accused (in a trial) of betraying the League and its values.
From initial champion of the League and its most grateful adherent, the hero fails the first test he encounters. However he is given a second chance. HH is ordered to search the archive for his own file. “A shudder went through me at the thought of what I should still learn in this hour. How awry, altered and distorted everything and everyone was in these mirrors, how mockingly and unattainably did the face of truth hide itself behind all these reports, counter-reports and legends! What was still truth? What was still credible? And what would remain when I also learned about myself, about my own character and history from the knowledge stored in these archives? (p. 106)
In a Goodreads review, Ben Winch describes Hesse’s subject: “The crux of it is, it’s the story of a failure. An inevitable failure, I would say, but as Hesse himself says early in the piece, “the seemingly impossible must continually be attempted”. What, then, is the seemingly impossible attempt made here? It’s twofold: the telling of an untellable story, the making of an impossible journey … but in showing an awakening from the inside out it achieves something difficult and valuable and profound. And besides, it’s beautiful. Unique. Magical.”
Susan Budd comments (also on Goodreads): “Rereading this book now, at the same age Hesse was when he published it, I must acknowledge my own desertion of the journey, my own forgetfulness and unfaithfulness to the league. I even sold my violin ~ figuratively speaking. And now I long to return.”
In my response to this story, I decided to choose three art objects: a painting of Don Quixote, the mad knight whose own quest is ridiculous and impossible, yet endearing. The historic Mantes carpet features a mesmerizing design where figures of animals and birds emerge and disappear among tangles of flowers and geometric vines. I also show a modern-day carpet in the process of construction. Unlike works of fiction or paintings where the artist roughs in a draft, then goes back and adds detail, the rug emerges fully formed from one end to the other. I end with a photo of my own, taken at the Gaudi Museum in Barcelona. The artist’s use of broken ceramic pieces to form a twisting rain gutter demonstrates his playful spirit, and a merging of everyday materials and beautiful design for a useful end product. The pigeon in the picture reinforces how effortlessly Gaudi’s work blends with nature.
All of these art elements figure in Hesse’s conception of the Journey: the madness inherent in chivalry, the mesmerizing loss of self, craftsmanship of a high order, playfulness, beauty, and utility.
Snoopy began his stormy writing career in July 1965 with a memorable first line lifted from 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (Charles Schulz Museum)
There are probably a hundred ways to write a good essay, but this is my default for when panic stations start ringing.
Select a topic (5 min.)
Find 3 articles on this topic (5 min.)
Select 1 quote from each article. It is important to introduce voices and ideas other than your own. (5 min.)
In one sentence provide some context for the quote or simply paraphrase the quote (put it in your own words). This sentence is placed either before or after the quote. (5 min.)
Write a sentence that puts two of the quotes in opposition to each other (opposing views). (5 min.)
Write a sentence that sets up 3rd quote as the resolution (the way out) of these opposing views. (5 min.)
Add a sentence that adds your own thought to this resolution. (5 min.)
Write a concluding sentence that sums up what you learned about the topic while writing the paper, and also suggest future questions. (5 min.)
Write the introduction, which mentions the topic, the debate around it, and why the reader should care about this. Though you write this sentence last, it is the first and most important sentence of your essay. (5 min.)
This will give you the nuts and bolts of a reasonably decent essay. You could stop here, reread, and polish a second draft. (15 min)
Total: 1 hour
To create a slightly better essay, here is an additional step:
Insert 2 or 3 examples or literary quotes (if you are writing about Shakespeare, for instance, this is where you insert quotes from Shakespeare’s plays), which relate in some way to your topic. If your topic is not Shakespeare, but say, advertising, this is where you insert images of ads and comment in your own words on these images. Here’s the trick: forget for a minute the arguments in your text and just write in your own words what most intrigues you about the image or the quote. This will give your essay a little sparkle and keep it from being too robotic. (15 min.)
Sample Exercise: Is Advertising Art?
Intro: Ads use sophisticated design and clever campaigns to sway human behaviour. But does this cleverness and influence make them art? The critics who answer yes point out how ads reflect current cultural values. The critics who answer no think art has a higher purpose. There is a third view that states art and ads often benefit from each other and in fact feed off of one another. To understand this, we need to consider the changing role of media in contemporary society.
Yes, ads reflects culture (commercialism is part of culture), the time period, technology and values of the day. Insert quote 1: Matt Miller, president of the body that oversees ads in the USA, defines art as “a reflection and expression of what is happening in society.” Using this broad definition, Miller notes how we live in an era of mass media, global trade and instant messaging: ads finance the media, encourage trade and adopt to the latest technology at lightning speed.
This argument is countered by Mary Warlick, art historian and executive director of The One Club, a New York trade organization. Quote 2: “Art is visual imagery that is meant to elevate thinking in an aesthetic context. [In contrast] what advertising does is give a visual record of our cultural ambiance and history, our tastes, our trends, our wants, our needs, our buying. It is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane.” (AdWeek, Nov. 12, 2001) Ads may be a reflection of contemporary culture and current trends, but that isn’t the purpose of art. Art helps us become more self-aware, to think critically and empathize more with other people. Advertising corrupts thinking and makes us selfish and short-sighted. It makes material things more important than relationships and always suggests there is a shortcut to happiness through the purchase of a product.
There is common ground: Quote 3: To the question, “is advertising art,” author Jonathan Glancey answers: “is art advertising? The simple answer to these questions is that art feeds advertising and vice versa.” (The Independent, July 1995)
Artists work on ads; ads feature artwork. Beyond this, there is an enormous gray area where ads and content overlap, such as a beautifully crafted music video that advertises a song. Film trailers are obviously ads, but they need to be clever, fun, exciting, provocative—they need to be artistic—or no one would watch them and share them.
My own thought: Western culture is moving in the direction where everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys predicted in the 1960s. The technology of smart phones and social media are the keys to these new citizen-artists. The trend started a hundred years ago when people started buying low-cost Brownie cameras and began recording their own lives. But smartphones and social media have taken it to another level of speed and accessibility. We continually revise, update and share family pictures, and use images to carefully craft our own public personas, selectively posting selfies and snapshots that promote our most popular and adventurous selves. These are advertisements for ourselves.
Conclusion: This state of citizen-artists continually talking and sharing with one another through media makes us all very art-smart, media-savvy. Ads reflect this desire to be as in-the-know, as mobile, as self-crafting of public image as possible. Everyone is an artist and all images are art because there is no alternative. There is no media innocence in the age of total connectivity.
Extra Step: Examples of a Calvin Klein ad featuring an Andy Warhol artwork, a Moncler ad featuring Chinese artist Liu Bolan.
Here is the final essay. Good luck to all you midnight crammers.
Intro: The book-loving blogger (Katherine Sedgwick) describes her latest acquisition, a breezy bio relating the youthful adventures of misunderstood poet, Sylvia Plath. The book is set in 1953, when Sylvia worked at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City.
A quote from the breezy bio’s inside flap informs us: “Sylvia lived at the Barbizon hotel … danced at the West Side Tennis Club, typed rejection letters to writers from The New Yorker and ate an entire bowl of caviar at an advertising luncheon. She stalked Dylan Thomas and fought off an aggressive diamond-wielding delegate from the United Nations. She took hot baths, had her hair done, and discovered her signature drink (vodka, no ice).”
Sedgwick confesses she’s reviewing a book she hasn’t yet read (well done!) However she did flip the book open and discovered this: “Mademoiselle’s rooms were mirrored, dark green and pink – fragrant with the cypress scent of Halo shampoo.”
Sedgwick, who also used Halo Shampoo when she was a girl, notes: “Who knew on those 1960s bath nights in tiny Queensborough, Ont., that I had something in common–shampoo–with the glamorous before-she-was-famous poet who worked at a glossy fashion magazine in New York City?”
Postscript: a TV commercial of Halo Shampoo from the 1960s.
What I like here is how three threads at first seem disconnected (the blogger, an ad for shampoo and the biography of a famous writer). When we learn that the blogger and famous writer both use the same shampoo, it sets off a marvelous nostalgia for youth, ambition and shiny hair. In a few words, we learn quite a lot. Sylvia Plath lives in snob city (she stalks Dylan Thomas, rejects New Yorker writers) while fending off a few stalkers of her own. She works in fashion, but is not defined by it–she may be happy (the signature vodkas) or unhappy (the signature vodkas). We don’t know. I like the name dropping, the hotels, the advertising luncheons, though the entire bowl of caviar (how big was the bowl?) sounds uncomfortable. The overall impression is greatness awaits– portrait of the artist as a young woman, but in the meantime, it’s Halo Shampoo.