Klee Rules

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2011, under , ,

Seeing Paul Klee’s paintings first hand is a great experience. The current exhibition at MOMAK (National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto) entitled ‘Klee: Art in the Making’, has been beckoning for weeks. I finally made it this past Sunday, at first having to wait for a hailstorm to clear off – it rained for the best part of the afternoon.

There is so much music and rhythm in Paul’s work. The paintings are beautiful in their duality: on the one hand intuitive, poetic, spiritual; on the other organized, orderly, architectural. Someone described Klee’s drawings in Pedagogical Sketchbook as ‘creative arithmetic’ — nicely summed up. The MOMAK exhibition, as the title suggests, sheds light on the actual process and methods Klee used to produce his art. The methods were paramount to him: from 1911 onwards, Klee kept an ongoing list of his works as each entry included, beside a title, a detailed description of the techniques used. In this Klee was a fanatic: the earliest entry relates to the work from 1883, when he was only four years old. Klee documented this "working process" with photographs of his atelier in various periods (spot Klee in his Bern studio, 1926), and even marked certain paintings as "Sonderklasse (Special Class)", ‘keeping these works at hand to use as models to reflect on’. Klee’s techniques were varied, and the exhibition outlines them into four distinct parts, evidently following Klee’s own categorizations:

Process 1: “Ölpause — Oilpause” (sketches colourized, only slightly modified)

Process 2: “Zerschnitten/Neukombiniert — Cut/Reassemble”

Process 3: “Teilstücke — Parts” (“non-symmetrical balance”)

Process 4: “Recto/Verso — Two-sided Sheet” (IR scans reveal the underlying images, which seem to have little to do with the painting itself, apart from a possible thematic inspiration — one such very spare painting has a background drawing of what looks a heavily tattooed Hell’s Angel-type fella with a mean-looking mutt on the leash! How progressive is that!)

The above methods are not unlike how a modern poet, especially one equipped with a word-processor, might compose verse. I recall an interview with the poet Hugo Williams in the ‘Horizon Review’, in which he was asked about the materials he uses to write with — here is Hugo’s answer:
A pen, which never leaves the house; a beautiful Parker. After that I type it out, then handwrite it, and it goes back and forth from typing to writing until I’m happy with it. One thing I do sometimes is type out individual units, bits that stick together. Very often I find though that I don’t know what order things are in, so I have to find that out by getting a beginning and an end. Then, to find the middle bits, I make strips of paper with the text and move them around on a desk. I suppose that’s what people do with computers but I just do it on the desk.                       

Another important work from the MOMAK exhibition is Klee’s Tightrope Walker (1923). The whole drawing is hovering, like its protagonist, between the tragic and the comic. The work has been commonly interpreted as a metaphor for a precarious existence of a modern man, yet Klee used this particular piece for an even more important end: to demonstrate his dynamic concept of space and perception. In the aforementioned Pedagogical Sketchbook Klee’s tightrope walker with a bamboo stick is ‘emphatically concerned about his balance. He calculates the Gravity on both ends. He is the scale’ (p. 42). As he walks the balance is alternately disturbed and restored, left to right, right to left. Klee uses this elegant metaphor to allude to the subjectivity of human perception. As Sibyl Moholy-Nagy explains in her introduction: ‘Man, precariously balanced on two unstable legs, uses optical illusion as a safety device. Horizon as concrete fact, and horizon as an imaginary safety belt that has to be believed in…’ (p.10). Indeed, Klee shows us another example:

asking if the representation of the house wall is incorrect. He concludes that it is not incorrect logically (as the lower windows are larger perspectively since they are closer to the eye), but are incorrect phychologically, because ‘every creature, in order to preserve his balance, insists on seeing actual verticals projected as such’ (p.41). Klee’s idea of balance is non-symmetrical though. It is achieved through the ‘equalization of unequal but equivalent parts’. Here is Klee’s illustration:

As Moholy-Nagy puts it: ‘The purely material balance of the scale finds its counter-part in the purely psychological balance of light and dark, weightless and heavy colours’ (p.10). Klee thus challenges our conventional perception, ushering us into the world of metaphysical and spiritual — his invitation to approach art intuitively. This ‘transition from observation to intuition’ defines, as Moholy-Nagy suggests, Klee’s deepest axiomatic wisdom: TO STAND DESPITE ALL POSSIBILITIES TO FALL! Sounds cool. I should hang this up above my writing desk.

Klee’s concepts and speculations are no less fascinating than his paintings. Having so far only scratched the surface, I will keep probing and investigating. Expect further musings on Paul Klee. To wrap this entry up, here is a 4 minute video of Klee’s few paintings as they drift in and out of a low-key jazzy tune. The beauty of juxtaposition.

April 27, 2011

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Pilgrims, Ghosts, Suicides

Posted on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, under ,

In Kamakura (1920)

In Kamakura, near the great Daibutsu,
When I had sat a long time on the ground
And been gathered up, forgetful of my face and form,
Into the face and form of endless dream,
I found among the booths a little pendant Buddha
With the steel of a round mirror for His halo . . .
So that a brooding head still intervenes in bronze
Between my face and the image of my face,
And I cannot see myself and not see Him.

This poem, which so lovingly captures what looks like a moment of approaching a religious ecstasy, was penned by Witter Bynner, US poet (1881-1968). Bynner and Harvard friend Arthur Davison Ficke (1883–1945), were the last American poets of note to visit Japan from 1917 until after the Second World War. Which leads us to Lafcadio Hearn (see my earlier post ‘Kiri sute gomen’) for Bynner was among the earliest pilgrims to Hearn’s house in Matsue (thousands have followed). Here is the poem which recounts this particular visit:

In the House of Lafcadio Hearn (1917)

I left my name today
Before him and Buddha,
And knelt among his books,
And had tea with his wife and two children
And bowed low to them . . .
And then in his garden,
When his wife picked for me the petals I wished,
His son said,
“But he liked the maple best,”
And brought me a spray of young leaves.

Compare this rather conventional poem to Bynner’s prose relation of the same visit, in his letter of May 1917 to Haniel Long:

A Japanese house. A barefoot boy of nineteen with three or four strong hairs on his chin and strong goggles on his eyes. The Hearn nose. Otherwise, Japanese. Shy, shining, abrupt manners. Little English—none at first. His mother, out but sent for. I was led past two or three simple purely Japanese rooms, then stockinged my way across the oil-cloth floor of a small room with a few pieces of European furniture, table and chairs, into a study lined with bookcases but otherwise Japanese. My card was laid before Hearn’s picture in the little Buddhist shrine. Mother came. No English. Little sister. Next to no eyes. Bows. Smiles. Tea. I seemed to be the first pilgrim. They didn’t even know that the house was mentioned in the guidebook. Their name is Koizumi. They were pleased. I asked for a blossom from the garden. She gave it to me. But Kazuo Koizumi crossed and brought me a spray of little leaves, saying, “Father liked best the maples.” And of that I made a poem.

Sometimes prose can be more ‘poetic’ than poetry. More affecting, more vivid, in this instance.

Let’s turn to the man himself, Lafcadio Hearn, about whom I’ve been meaning to write for more than a month now. My apologies to folks out there expecting the report from Meiji Mura, where I did visit in early March, two days before the tsunami hit Japan in fact. The Meiji village is an open air museum, and is a period building visitor’s delight: 67 historical edifices from the Meiji, Taisho and early Showa periods. Each building – and we are talking major architecture here – would be at first dismantled, then moved over from its original location to the village (situated in Gifu prefecture), where it would be finally reconstructed – brick by brick, plank by plank, nail by nail – to its original glory. Since 1965 various buildings have been strategically dotted over the 250 acres of rolling hills, overlooking the lake Iruka.

Surrounded by churches, hotels, theatres, opulent residences, Hearn’s summer house looked hardly imposing. That I didn’t mind. Yet, disappointing that the upper floor, where Hearn would stay while visiting a fishmonger Yamaguchi-san (‘the most amiable Japanese [Hearn] had ever known’), was off-limits. Instead, various house objects have been moved to the ground level and squeezed inside this tiny room. I rather liked those amateurish drawings, possibly done by Hearn, hanging from the ceiling giving the whole room a casual, life-like atmosphere (someone, remove those damn tablets!). 

Lafcadio is largely renowned for his ghost stories, the most famous collection being Kwaidan (stories were later used as the basis for Masaki Kobayashi’s eponymous, wonderfully expressionistic film from 1965). Hearn’s interest, even infatuation, with the supernatural and the macabre dates back to his Cincinnati days of 1870s (and quite possibly earlier), the period when he became known for his florid journalistic accounts of local murders, and his interest in the city’s disadvantaged. When the latter interest erupted into a love affair, Hearn went as far as marrying a black woman, an illegal act at the time (they divorced in 1877).

No wonder Lafcadio felt at home in Japan, the country’s folklore teeming with all kinds of monsters, elves and ghost legends. On the other hand, it is difficult not to conclude that it was his professional inquisitiveness, and most of all open-mindedness, which enabled Hearn to delve so deep into the psyche of the nation so alien and mysterious. At the same time he was very much aware, probably with a tinge of sadness, that the bridge between the Eastern and Western worlds would forever rest on shaky foundations for there could never be a complete understanding of each other:

Sympathy is limited by comprehension. We may sympathize to the
same degree that we understand. One may imagine that he
sympathizes with a Japanese or a Chinese; but the sympathy can
never be real to more than a small extent outside of the simplest
phases of common emotional life,--those phases in which child and
man are at one. The more complex feelings of the Oriental have
been composed by combinations of experiences, ancestral and
individual, which have had no really precise correspondence in
Western life, and which we can therefore not fully know. For
converse reasons, the Japanese cannot, even though they would,
give Europeans their best sympathy.

from ‘Kokoro’, part II: ‘The Genius of Japanese Civilization’, 1895 [http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8882]

Hearn’s intuitive, serpent-tongue-like inquisitiveness leads him to question the creeds of the Western thought once confronted with the doctrines and views of Buddhist teaching. To borrow a phrase from today's Guardian article (on Chris Hitchens), Hearn's open-minded curiosity is akin to a 'child's eager apprehension of what feels just and true'. Consider the following passage in which Lafcadio consults his learned friend about the case of a certain young priest from Osaka, who committed suicide as he found it impossible to reconcile his powerful worldly attraction to a woman with the equally powerful religious calling.

I called upon a Japanese friend, a Buddhist scholar, to ask some
questions about the religious aspects of the incident. Even as a
confession of human weakness, that suicide appeared to me a

It did not so appear to my friend. He spoke words of rebuke. He
reminded me that one who even suggested suicide as a means of
escape from sin had been pronounced by the Buddha a spiritual
outcast,--unfit to live with holy men. As for the dead priest, he
had been one of those whom the Teacher called fools. Only a fool
could imagine that by destroying his own body he was destroying
also within himself the sources of sin.

"But," I protested, "this man's life was pure.... Suppose he
sought death that he might not, unwittingly, cause others to
commit sin?"

My friend smiled ironically. Then he said:--"There was once a
lady of Japan, nobly torn and very beautiful, who wanted to
become a nun. She went to a certain temple, and made her wish
known. But the high-priest said to her, 'You are still very
young. You have lived the life of courts. To the eyes of worldly
men you are beautiful; and, because of your face, temptations to
return to the pleasures of the world will be devised for you.
Also this wish of yours may be due to some momentary sorrow.
Therefore, I cannot now consent to your request.' But she still
pleaded so earnestly, that he deemed it best to leave her
abruptly. There was a large hibachi--a brazier of glowing
charcoal--in the room where she found herself alone. She heated
the iron tongs of the brazier till they were red, and with them
horribly pierced and seamed her face, destroying her beauty
forever. Then the priest, alarmed by the smell of the burning,
returned in haste, and was very much grieved by what he saw. But
she pleaded again, without any trembling in her voice: 'Because I
was beautiful, you refused to take me. Will you take me now?' She
was accepted into the Order, and became a holy nun.... Well,
which was the wiser, that woman, or the priest you wanted to

"But was it the duty of the priest," I asked, "to disfigure his

"Certainly not! Even the woman's action would have been very
unworthy if done only as a protection against temptation. Self-
mutilation of any sort is forbidden by the law of Buddha; and
she transgressed. But, as she burned her face only that she might
be able to enter at once upon the Path, and not because afraid of
being unable by her own will to resist sin, her fault was a minor
fault. On the other hand, the priest who took his own life
committed a very great offense. He should have tried to convert
those who tempted him. This he was too weak to do. If he felt it
impossible to keep from sinning as a priest, then it would have
been better for him to return to the world, and there try to
follow the law for such as do not belong to the Order."

"According to Buddhism, therefore, he has obtained no merit?" I

"It is not easy to imagine that he has. Only by those ignorant of
the Law can his action be commended."

"And by those knowing the Law, what will be thought of the
results, the karma of his act?"

My friend mused a little; then he said, thoughtfully:--"The whole
truth of that suicide we cannot fully know. Perhaps it was not
the first time."

"Do you mean that in some former life also he may have tried to
escape from sin by destroying his own body?"

"Yes. Or in many former lives."

"What of his future lives?"

"Only a Buddha could answer that with certain knowledge."

"But what is the teaching?"

"You forget that it is not possible for us to know what was in
the mind of that man."

"Suppose that he sought death only to escape from sinning?"

"Then he will have to face the like temptation again and again,
and all the sorrow of it, and all the pain, even for a thousand
times a thousand times, until he shall have learned to master
himself. There is no escape through death from the supreme
necessity of self-conquest."

After parting with my friend, his words continued to haunt me;
and they haunt me still. They forced new thoughts about some
theories hazarded in the first part of this paper. I have not yet
been able to assure myself that his weird interpretation of the
amatory mystery is any less worthy of consideration than our
Western interpretations. I have been wondering whether the loves
that lead to death might not mean much more than the ghostly
hunger of buried passions. Might they not signify also the
inevitable penalty of long-forgotten sins?

                from ‘Kokoro’, part IX: ‘By Force of Karma’, 1895

Here is a one-minute Lafcadio Hearn intro video, including an outside view of his summering house at Meiji Mura:

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The Sakura Vexations

Posted on Friday, April 08, 2011, under ,

It is the season of cherry blossoms. It is also the season of by-elections. And this year in particular it is the period of post-tsunami aftershocks, both literal and mental. The period of rebuilding the humbled towns and villages, of re-solidifying the country’s collective as well as many personal identities. Many have predicted it will take years. Some say the ‘new identity’ is bound to emerge: more honest, straightforward, transparent, less evasive, less self-interested. Maybe these are the new platforms on which the local politicians plan to pick up votes. Who knows. The only thing we are able to hear from the blaring speakers mounted on top of the canvassing vans, which incessantly cruise the cities and towns nationwide, are the usual slogans and the ubiquitous repetitions of the candidates’ names, morning day and night: Matsuda san! Matsuda san! Vote Matsuda! Thank you very much for your attention! Thank you so very much! Matsuda san! Matsuda… followed by a touch of Japanese irony: We are truly sorry to make so much noise! We sincerely apologize… Matsuda san! Vote Matsuda! — and so on, making you wish Matsuda-san suddenly materialized so you can punch him straight in the face.

The Happy Hopefuls

The public spaces where sakura are blooming are turning from places of wonder to tiny battlefields, where people are pushing, shoving and elbowing each other for that ‘perfect-angle’ digital snap. What’s even more surprising is that the usual ‘sumimasen’ and ‘gomenasai’ (pardon, excuse me), the hallmark expressions of Japanese politeness and awareness, are largely absent in these instances. Such is the commotion and hurry as if the blossoms would vanish the very next minute. As if people are so drawn in by the call of the annual exercise, they suddenly start regarding their fellow man as no more than a physical obstacle jeopardising a certain photographic mission. Insane. Yes, the beautiful sakura trees are very much about, but the access to them is perilously linked with the crowds and the potential annoyance they bring. To find a solitary cherry tree in a pristine, natural environment is truly a rarity these days. Unless you are lucky to live in the country, or perform a monk’s duty at a remote Zen temple. There, perhaps, one could truly become awestruck and consequently pen a haiku or two.

The following images were taken three days ago around Shijo-Kamogawa in central Kyoto (obstacles notwithstanding). Click to enlarge

April 08, 2011

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Posted on Tuesday, April 05, 2011, under , ,

House of Mirrors
Tall and thin or short and fat
On the fairgrounds where it’s at
House of Mirrors is the name
Don’t you miss it be a shame
Silly shapes believe it’s true
Mirrors make a fool of you.

by Geoffrey Schmitt

My first ever visit to the house of mirrors the other day at the Kobe amusement park, reminded me of couple of great flicks in which mirror labyrinths play a big role. They are, of course, ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ (1948), dir. Orson Welles, and ‘Enter the Dragon’ ('73), a classic Bruce Lee feature. Orson's masterpiece was originally intended to run over two hours (presumably bringing much in-depth dialogue and characterization to it). That the Hollywood big shots are very good at butchering wonderful scripts in pursuit of financial profit is no news, as the following extract attests:

The early script of The Lady from Shanghai is dated August 17, 1946, when the film was still titled Take This Woman. At that point, Welles was still basing all the action for the film in New York City and on nearby Long Island, which were the same settings used in the novel by Sherwood King, entitled If I Die Before I Wake.

For anyone who knows the work of Orson Welles, this first draft also includes many wonderful references, such as this passage that begins on page 15, where Michael O’ Hara and the “notorious” Mrs.Bannister discuss Don Quixote, which naturally, was completely cut out of the film when it was finally released (at 87 minutes), by Columbia in 1948:

THE GIRL There’s a police car —
MICHAEL We’re just comin’ out of the park, the horse and cart’ll make it too simple for the cops to be findin’ us —
He pulls up to a lamp-post.
Michael gets out of the carriage and hitches the horse to the lamp.
THE GIRL You don’t care for them very much, do you, Michael?
MICHAELThe cops? (somberly) Faith, they can struggle along without our doin’ their work for ‘em.
He helps the girl down out of the carriage, then bows to the horse.
MICHAEL (continuing) Farewell, Rosinante.
THE GIRL That sounds like my name. (smiles)
He takes her arm.
They start walking.
MICHAEL Sure, Rosinante’s a horse in a book. You’re Rosaleen.
THE GIRL Who’s she?
MICHAEL A girl in a book.
THE GIRL I remember — Rosinante was the old nag Don Quixote rode when he went out after those windmills. I think you’re a lot like Don Quixote, yourself Michael. You haven’t heard about the age of chivalry. It’s out of business.
MICHAEL The tough boys that went after you in the park — they didn’t look like windmills to me —
THE GIRL They weren’t. I’m sorry, Michael, I guess you’re really what you think you are.
MICHAEL Whatever’s that now?
THE GIRL A knight errant — a real live knight errant. When you were a boy, you read all about them, didn’t you, Michael? And you never got over it.
MICHAEL (with a quizzical grin) You mean I never grew up? And what, can you tell me, does a knight errant do for his livelihood?
THE GIRL Oh, he doesn’t bother much about earning a living. He spends most of this time rescuing maidens in distress. He always slays the dragon and saves the princess, and he makes the prettiest speeches. But you’d better be careful. Things have changed, Sir Knight. Nowadays it’s usually the dragon that lives happily ever after.
MICHAEL Don’t the princess and the knight ever make it?
THE GIRL Sometimes she gives him a kiss.
Michael just looks at her, terribly embarrassed. A funny little spark comes into her eye.
THE GIRL (continuing) Michael… You know what’s wrong with being a knight errant?
THE GIRL He’s brave and bold because his heart is pure. But he’s an awful fool — He doesn’t know anything about women.
She takes his hand and leads him to the street corner.
THE GIRL (continuing) If I hadn’t seen the way you can fight, I’d say you spend all your time reading.
MICHAEL A sailor has nothin’ but time, Faith. So must a girl ridin’ all by herself in a carriage in the lonesome dark. You must have time, and to spare.
THE GIRL (quietly) No, I haven’t much time… (after a minute — she’s been thinking) You don’t like the police, Michael. Is there some reason why they don’t like you?
MICHAEL (darkly) They’ve never put me in jail — in American.
By now they have stopped at the street corner.
THE GIRL My car’s a block down that way…
MICHAEL The nicest jails are in Australia. The worst are in Spain.
THE GIRL You must be a naughty boy, Michael.
MICHAEL I’m careless.

source: http://www.wellesnet.com/?p=858

The movie has to have one of the best-matched opening and closing lines ever:

When I start out to make a fool of myself...
...there´s very little can stop me.
Well, everybody is somebody´s fool.
The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old.
So I guess l´ll concentrate on that.
Maybe l´ll live so long...that l´ll forget her.
Maybe l´ll die trying.

Here are the 'highlights' of the film, featuring of course the Shanghai Ladyship herself (Rita Hayworth), amidst those fateful mirrors. 

The music is provided by The Black Keys song 'Ten Cent Pistol', made more than 60 years after the movie and yet it blends well with the post-war noir atmosphere. These lyrics in particular: 

There's nothing worse
In this world
Than payback from a
Jealous girl
The laws of man
Don't apply
When blood gets in
A woman's eye

Well, she hit them with her ten cent pistol
Because they ruined her name
Well, she hit them with her ten cent pistol
And they've never been the same

April 05, 2011

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On Awaji Island

Posted on Monday, April 04, 2011, under ,

Climbing the Mount Mikuma to Sumoto Castle and Back

by a designated footpath reserved for the slightly adventurous — if the adventurous means wearing Columbia shoes, nibbling the potato chips, pausing to catch breath between bites and swallowed up syllables, if the adventurous means gesturing there’s a songbird in the bushes, as it crosses the path at a safe distance and hops off out of sight leaving us to notice how the earth layers (the strips of land having been shaved off by bulldozers) have exposed the roots and crust ducts to the naked eye, the eye that leads us up to the cryptic white blotches on several tree barks – the birth of fungi?

On the hilltop, you take a snap surreptitiously: my shaved head from the back as the panorama foreground. Your ocular cunning surprises.
The castle grounds unpeopled. A tea room, its one door open, dark inside. A woman dozed off with her back turned, panda-like. The fried octopus rolls are advertised, not to be seen or sniffed.

The castle fenced-off by the restoration work signs. Curiosity gets the better of me as I hurdle over the metal bars — anticipating your law-abiding, scolding look — and climb up the wooden staircase for a glimpse of the castle’s interior: the paint peeling off the walls, the window bars rusty black; the whole place abandoned to its natural decay. I take the opportunity to imagine my nail-scratching the black bars down to their bloodstained bones.

On the way down the path feels much steeper. A polite nod to a man walking uphill. Knees hurting. My near-calamitous fall. More nods to more unnamed birds. Your birdlike chirping.

At the foot of the hill you point to the public toilet. It takes me a few seconds to recall I wanted to pee back up the path. We stroll along the beach fancying the sand belongs to us. In the distance children’s excited voices: 'Unagi! Unagi!' I pick up a ball of sand the size of a marble, about to pocket it, as a souvenir. 'Leave it' – you say 'it wants to become a grain.'

April 02, 2011 

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