Sunday, September 22, 2013

The emptiness of fullness

'Sonata for Piano and Vacuum Cleaner' can be found towards the end of The Hall of Uselessness, the new volume of collected essays by Simon Leys, in a section entitled, 'Marginalia'.  In it, Leys tells of the revelation experienced by Glenn Gould when a maid switched on the hoover as he was trying to play the piano: the music could still be felt in his fingers and even sounded 'better' than it had without the vacuum cleaner.  Leys goes on to mention the profundity achieved by Beethoven, composing in his deafness, and Monet painting his waterlillies through eyes half blinded with cataracts.  These examples are very familiar, but perhaps less so is that of the literati painter and art historian Huang Binhong (1865-1955) who, like Monet, continued to paint in old age as his eyesight failed.  Leys writes that though Huang 'could not see the actual effects of his brushstrokes, he relied on the rhythmic sequence of the calligraphic brushwork, which he had mastered through the daily exercise of a lifetime.  For him, painting had disappeared as a visual experience, but it remained as a vital breathing of his whole being. In their fierce blackness these late landscapes of Huang Binhong are to the eye what the harsh complexity of Beethoven's quartets are to the ear.'

In a recent article on the artist David A. Ross goes further and compares the late 'black Binhongs' to the 'sheets of sound employed by John Coltrane or the feedback squalls of Jimi Hendrix.' Whilst a whole tradition of artists since the Song era used minimalist means to express 'the Daoist paradox of an infinitely full emptiness', Huang 'aimed to express not the fullness of emptiness but the emptiness of fullness and to this end evolved a style that was just the opposite of minimalist: dense, layered, self-impacted, black in the literal sense.'  Sometimes Huang would apply dozens of layers of ink.  At the end of his life he painted landscapes of Hangzhou which were more about the beauty of the brushstrokes than the reality of any particular scene.  Simon Leys likens Huang's daily practice in calligraphy to that of the guqin masters, who occasionally played 'silent zither', practicing a piece by fingering the whole composition without ever  touching the instrument's strings.  Leys concludes his text with an anecdote about Tao Yuanming, the great fifth century poet whose landscape poetry I have discussed here before.  When people asked why he carried around a stringless zither he said "I seek only the inspiration that lies within the zither.  Why should I strain myself on its strings?" 

I couldn't find non-copyright examples of Huang Binhong paintings to include here, so I have illustrated this post with details from Chinese postage stamps produced in his honour in 1996. 

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