Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Crafting Beauty

The very lovely Frances wrote a blog post the other day about visiting the Japan Society in New York to see an exhibition by a Japanese 'national treasure', the textile artist Serizawa Keisuke. (Over here, in the UK, we may decide amongst ourselves that, say, Stephen Fry or Alan Bennett is a national treasure, but in Japan, it can be made official).

Her post reminded me of an exhibition that I visited at the British Museum in July 2007 which was running at the same time as the Chinese Terracotta Warriors one. But this one was actually more impressive and awe-inspiring. It was called 'Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan' and I have rarely come away from an exhibition wishing I could have just nicked most of the exhibits to keep for my very own.

Items from 8 categories were displayed - ceramics, textiles, lacquer, metal, wood & bamboo, dolls, cut metal foil and glass. The quality was absolutely breath-taking and just, well, perfect. Each of the items on display were works of art as well as being completely functional (apart from the dolls which didn't actually do anything for me - guess I'm not a doll person although I could appreciate the skill in creating them. Those I wouldn't have nicked). The artists are all classed as modern 'national treasures' and are revered as such.

Each item (well, the ones I liked) could have been put on a plinth individually and had a gallery all to itself, to just be admired. So the overall effect of having so many items of this quality all in one room was almost overpowering. They even caused complete strangers to converse about how beautiful it all was (i.e., I found myself discussing some particularly exquisite ceramics with someone) and if you know anything about the English, you'll know we just don't do that sort of thing.

So, I want to know, do we create such fabulous masterpieces in this country? And if so, who are they? If not, why not? I'm aware that the Japanese have a more deeply held cultural appreciation for simple objects beautifully created, but do we?

I'm probably breaking all kinds of copyright rules here but I've scanned in a few pictures of some of the items that made me catch my breath. There are unashamedly more pictures of ceramics below than any other medium, because I liked them the best (click on any of the pictures to make them bigger). If you're interested in getting hold of a copy of the catalogue, you can get one from Amazon. I would highly recommend it as there are many more pictures in it than I'll show here.

This is a masterful example of using coloured glazes.

I loved the colour and the crackle glaze effect of this bowl.

This is a modern interpretation of a more primitive style of vessel used exclusively for drinking tea. I imagine the texture of the thick rough glaze must form an integral part of the ceremony.

This is a fabulous thing - it's notoriously difficult to make a spherical vessel but to then get just the very top layer of the clay to crack and fissure, to make it look like thousands of tiny lengths of cotton thread have been adhered to the surface, is just extraordinary.

This is a bowl that has been made from clay that has been marbled into layers before being formed into a bowl. But notice how the layers all remain perfectly uniform to each other. This bowl cannot have been made on a wheel because the layers would swirl - so how was it made? I have no idea....

As mentioned, there were textiles there, mostly kimono designs, and they were all lovely but this one blew me away. This design has been tie-dyed. I'll just let that sink in for a second before I repeat - TIE-DYED! Click on this picture for a closer look and then compare it to your memories of your own primary school tie-dyed t-shirts, and marvel at the skill shown here.

This was my favourite item in the whole exhibition. A wooden box that has been lacquered but just look at it. It's unbelievably tactile - not to mention smooth, shiny and red, red, red.

I need to go and lie down now - I'm all overcome with object-lust.....

Saturday, 24 October 2009

From Sweden with love...

The Lovely Husband has been away on business for three days in Sweden. I've been quite jealous because I really really want to go to Scandinavia - Norway for the fjords, wooden churches and Vikings; Sweden for the, er, Vikings; Denmark for the Iron Age villages and, um, Vikings; Finland for the reindeer; Iceland (does Iceland count as being in Scandinavia?) for the glaciers and volcanoes; all of it for the Northern Lights.

He went to a place called Karlskrona which is on the coast, roughly on the same longitude as Vienna and latitude as Sunderland. He said there were lots of little islands visible from the port but that the town itself, given that it's got some sort of world heritage status, wasn't as pretty as he'd been hoping. But, never mind, he's now been to Sweden and I haven't.

To cheer me up he brought me a couple of presents - something sleek and elegant, oozing Scandinavian design, perhaps? In brushed stainless steel if not in silver?

You'd be wrong.

Now, I'm not being ungrateful because, frankly, by the time you've been married to each other as long as we have, any gift is welcome, especially one where I haven't provided exact details of what to get, where to get it and how much it would cost.

So what did I get?

A jar of Lingonberry jam. Wrapped in a pair of dirty socks for protection. Yum.

And a bar of chocolate. But not just any old chocolate, oh no. I got a bar of this:

And, you know what? I couldn't actually have asked for more perfect gifts. I love The Lovely Husband hundreds because he still knows how to make me laugh.

Welcome home, babe - me and the two-and-a-half cats all missed you...

Friday, 23 October 2009

Autumnwatch update

The yellow Japanese Maple at the end of my bridge is doing it's psychedelic autumn thing, as promised. The pictures show progress throughout October.

We're not going to talk about the red one. It's in disgrace until it bucks its ideas up.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Aztecs would understand....

I had a very maudlin day today. Yesterday, Saturday, had been fine, I'd done a craft fair at Alresford in Hampshire, which effectively fills the day from getting up at 6am to getting home at about 5.30pm. I get to people-watch and usually make a bit of money, it was okay.

But today somehow ended up like a teenaged Sunday in the mid-70s. I got really bored. There was stuff I should have been doing, like making jewellery for the (hoped-for) Christmas rush, but I couldn't be arsed to do it. There was nothing on the telly I wanted to watch. I should have gone to the allotment but couldn't be bothered. There are books I want to read but I'm saving them up for a trip to Eastern Europe in a couple of weeks time (which I'll write about then). It ended up being a grey day laced with a hefty dollop of ennui.

I listened to a bit of Radio Four but it was Poetry Please and the requested poems were all those ones about death, you know the ones, "Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep" and that one from Four Weddings and a Funeral by W H Auden called 'Funeral Blues' that starts "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone". It didn't help my mood and was all so miserable that I had to turn the radio off, but it reminded me that a few weeks ago when there were one or two programmes on the box about the Aztec civilisation (because the British Museum has a new exhibition running about Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor) that I had recalled how much I had enjoyed reading Aztec poetry and that I really should look some of it up again. As I was reading some of this online yesterday, it dawned on me how similar in outlook these Aztec warriors were with the contemporaneous warrior culture of the Samurai - the reverence for beauty and nature (especially floral - the Japanese Emperor sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne) and the need to feel that one would be remembered after death. I think there may be a research project in there somewhere, examining the comparisons.

Aztec culture was fascinated by how transitory and impermanent human life was and equated it with the short, glorious life of a flower which quickly fades. They also conflated flowers with blood and held so-called 'Flowery Wars' where tribes would attack each other in order to capture future sacrificial victims.

Much Aztec poetry is about this similarity of flowers and the human lifespan, and is very moving. Well, I think so anyway although, I have to admit, it does come over a bit Emo. It reads like contemporary poetry but was written 600 years ago. Anyway, see what you think.

Will I have to go like the flowers that perish?
Will nothing remain of my name?
Nothing of my fame here on earth?
At least my flowers, at least my songs!
Earth is the region of the fleeting moment.
Is it also thus in the place
where in some way one lives?
Is there joy there, is there friendship?
Or is it only here on earth
we come to know our faces?
- Ayocuan, Nahua poet, c. 1490

Be indomitable, Oh my heart!
Love only the sunflower;
It is the flower of the Giver-of-Life!
What can my heart do?
Have we come, have we sojourned here on earth in vain?
As the flowers wither, I shall go.
Will there be nothing of my glory ever?
Will there be nothing of my fame on earth?
At most songs, at most flowers,
What can my heart do?
Have we come, have we sojourned on earth in vain?
- Anonymous, Aztec poet

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Winkworth Arboretum

Here in the south east corner of England we have had, effectively, a drought for the best part of the last two months. The weather has been pretty warm and, occasionally, sunny too. A proper Indian Summer (why are they called that?).

The beginning of this week saw a change back to what we usually get at this time of year - damp, drizzle, wind, downpours, overcast, grey, grey, grey. Not even any decent mists, just lack of visibility due to showers which isn't the same thing, not at all.

But today? Today's been glorious again. Clear blue sky, warm bright sunshine, a day that just begs to be strolled about in.

I'm a member of a local Arts and Craft Society that holds exhibitions twice a year, in spring and autumn. I show my jewellery in the spring one but the autumn one is just for pictures. The exhibitions are all completely open which means that members can submit any picture they've created and it will be hung - there's no committee to decide whether it's good enough or not for public viewing. This generally results in an 'exciting' mix of styles. I don't like the concept of art (or literary) criticism - something I like another person might think is hideous, and vice versa. But there's no denying there are some extremely talented amateur artists out there, and there's usually a handful of pictures that I give serious consideration to buying. These sorts of amateur exhibitions are a brilliant way of buying original art that doesn't cost a fortune.

This is a long-winded way of saying that the autumn exhibition is running at the moment so I decided to pop over to have a look this morning. There were a few that caught my eye - one especially was a fab picture of a purple jellyfish, sadly out of my price range - but I couldn't decide so came away empty-handed.

As it was such a beautiful day I felt the need to take my camera out to catch some of the gorgeous autumn colours. A few days ago I'd said to The Lovely Husband that a trip to Winkworth Arboretum, a local National Trust site, might be in order and today was the day.

The site covers approximately 100 acres and, until 1937, was an undeveloped steep-sided valley with two fishing lakes, surrounded by rolling hills. It was sold to a Dr Wilfrid Fox who decided to assemble a large-scale collection of trees and shrubs within a semi-natural setting. In 1948 Dr Fox was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's highest award, the Victoria Medal of Honour for his work in ornamental street tree planting. He was particularly taken with the Sorbus, a group containing Mountain Ash and Whitebeam and, to this day, hundreds of these trees are still found at Winkworth.

In 1952 he gave 62 acres to the National Trust which bought a further 35 acres five years later. Dr Fox remained on the Management Committee overseeing the care and continued development of the site until his death in 1962.

So that's a spot of background history - now onto the (many!) pictures - don't forget you can click on each picture and it will open much bigger: