On an autumn day at Hōmu

Two days ago I was in Basel for the opening of my Autumn-themed exhibition at Hōmu, Japanisch Wohnen in Basel. It was the opening weekend for the Basel Herbstmesse too, the sun kept peeking through the clouds on one of the balmiest autumn days so far.

These are the nicest days, aren’t they? When the sun still warms your face, the trees are rich in color but you can already walk feeling crunchy sounds underneath your feet.

It was going to be a good day, everyone in town could feel it. It was only the evening before we finished putting up all the paintings and books.

The Autumn in Japan exhibition is centered around my latest book and its season. There are some of the original travel sketchbook pages to see, and I have released an exclusive print (top left image in gallery below) featuring one of the book’s favorite images – From Kyoto to Nara – in a “wall” size format of 80 by 19 cm.

In the walls surrounding the book we scattered some of the elements of the Japanese season in ink, as they have been painted and sung about since the Nara period. Covering favorite flowers, fruits, the Autumn moon and even the single deer calling out in the fields.

I wanted to remind visitors that this season can be so warm as to still see moonflowers blooming. Also that some of its most cherished fruits – sweet chestnuts, persimmons, pumpkins – are at home not only in Japan but also not too far from us in the Mediterranean areas. The two small postcards on display were painted in Crete, but could have equally been painted in Portugal where I was born.

Some of the originals are perennial subjects I regularly paint. Even so, I have my doubts whether I can paint such a thin branch of maple leaves shown just before the wind plucks them away, or that luscious rank of moonflowers. Some moments may occur only once in a lifetime, even if we try our best time and again.

My work, whether in painting or book form, is a continuous connection between the literature and poetry of Japan, nature and my brush. I honored this connection in two ways.

First, the paintings are hung using a simple loop knot in the same white cotton thread that is used in the “Autumn in Japan” binding. So elegant and so courteously sourced on short notice from my first hour collaborator in print, Namban.

Second, by bringing the time travel journey we started in Asakusa, Tokyo (where the book begins) from Ishiguro Kazuo all the way back to the Nara period – the beginning of Japanese poetry – with the Man’Yōshū.

Those of you who have read the book already know that that particular trip closed around the medieval period literature. When the idea for the exhibition at Hōmu first came up and I examined the space, a vision of the missing piece floated in my mind…

In that vision I could see a field featuring all the seven Japanese Autumn grasses on the wall behind the display where the book would be placed. So for over a month, as summer turned into Autumn I set to work to see that vision come alive. Flower by flower, blade of grass by blade of grass, and more…

Like most of my works, I wanted this one to explore the topic in two layers, an essential one staring back at you from the surface, and the one you can only see once you get close enough. Once you slow down enough to allow yourself to see another world of detail that can only be found in a particular moment.

I had three poems of the Man’Yōshū in mind, all from book VIII: 1537, 1538 and 1572. The first refers for the first time to the Japanese seven autumn grasses (秋七草) while the second completes that reference by naming them one by one.

My painting depicts all seven, and on the right hand side I included only the first poem, the second being evoked by the image. This is the “surface” view, the meadow seen from afar.

Additionally, of all the elements and words related to the Autumn season, none is more evocative of how impermanent and fragile the precious things surrounding us are than white dewdrops (白露).

If you slow down enough, get close enough to my painting you will see that, scattered everywhere through the grasses and flowers are glistening dewdrops in a large variety of shapes and moments. The dewdrop that just landed, the one about to fall, the other about to slide down a leaf, the “string of pearls” along a blade of grass, the blurred spray when it falls. This is the second layer of the painting, paired with poem 1572 on the left.

I’m not a calligrapher, so please look kindly on the characters, they are placeholders for the notion that our journey of ink painting really is an eternal circle, continuously evolving, yet continuously drinking from its original source. This ability to transport us through space and time, evoking words through images as well as its reverse is one of the most fascinating of Asian arts.

On Saturday I was finally able to share this piece in full, to judge its real world scale when I finally got to stand in front of it to read from my book and talk about these topics with you. Also when I got to demonstrate a little ink painting motif using my favorite travel tools with you.

Thank you so much to everyone who visited or attended the demonstrations. The people I met and the conversations I had on October 28 were, as always, the most fun part of such days. A big thank you to Hōmu for having me as a guest artist and tastefully selecting objects to complement my ink works. A special thanks to Sara and Vivian who kindly took the portraits from the artist talk shared here.

The exhibition remains open until November 25. I hope some of you reading this will be tempted to visit, and I hope to be there again sometime soon. Please watch this space or Hōmu’s homepage for updates.

Until we meet again, a little autumn color from Zurich.


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