“To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was”
Pablo Picasso, 1923
Hokusai (see Hokusai – The Japanese Hockney ) got his basic training in painting from The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, of which by far the best version in English is the 2 volume translation by Mai-Mai Sze published in 1957. The book describes how to paint a single blade of grass, or the petal of a flower, or an entire plum tree. But it deals with much more than technical skill, for it’s essentially a manual of the Slow Life as practised first by the Chinese and later by the Japanese. The first essential of painting, we are told, is to be in the right frame of mind, and there should be no attempt to apply brush to paper unless there has first been a period of quiet contemplation.
Mai-Mai Sze’s book is illustrated with reproductions of some of the best Chinese art, much of it accompanied, as was the tradition, by a poem from the artist. A Breath of Spring, by Tsou Fu-Lei (a section of which is shown above- the original is 88 inches long) was drawn in 1360 but has a particular resonance today, when spring has suddenly returned to winter.
This is Tsou Fu-Lei’s poem:
Where’er my straw-roofed hut may be, I long for the return of Spring.
And so I bid the autumn moon to linger on the old plum tree.
Though the silken wisps of smoke die out and the empty room be cold,
My daubs of ink may keep for me its shadow on the window.
Nothing is hurried, nothing is stinted in preparing to draw in the Mustard Seed way. A brush will be made from the whiskers of a mouse; the ink will be obtained by draining resin from a pine tree and then felling the tree, burning it and scraping the soot from the kiln. The soot needs to be mixed with glue, which is made by boiling donkey hides in water from the river Tung, which alone contains the minerals which will give the paint its required glossiness. The preparation was immense, the period of contemplation long, but the work of art itself would be completed with a few confident brushstrokes. And, as Picasso said, ” It is not art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was”