Sunday, March 31, 2019

Japanese art books: Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe; Four Generations of Yoshida Family; Artists Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Melanie Trede, Lorenz Bichler

Here's some Russian music for you: 

Alexander Borodin - Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances, Tańce Połowieckie

I have recently become enamored with Asian art.  Not just paintings, but their folk lore, belief in the afterlife and philosophies.  Here are three books that I have read in December.

Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao WatanabeBeauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe by Sandra Bowden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sadao Watanabe is a recent discovery for me and a wonderful one. Most books of his work are quite expensive so I was glad to get one a little more reasonably priced.

Sadao Watanabe was born in Tokyo in 1913 and was a Japanese printmaker. As a young man, he became a Christian.

His art is in the Japanese mingei (folk art) tradition. His subject matter is the Gospel, although influenced by Buddhist figure prints and he placed his Biblical subjects in a Japanese context. His last supper has Jesus Christ and the disciples wearing kimonos and the food on the table is rice and sushi.

I found these prints poignant and beautiful. They fascinate me because it presents the Gospel in a non-western tradition. It allows the viewer to see the Bible stories in a way not normally expressed.

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A Japanese Legacy: Four Generations of Yoshida Family ArtistsA Japanese Legacy: Four Generations of Yoshida Family Artists by Laura W. Allen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is simply gorgeous with full page color photographs of the work of the Yoshida family going back to the turn of the last century. The book also includes photos and biographies, which include both the men and women of the Yoshida family and also a description of their techniques.

Each artist, while belonging to the same family are unique in style and subject matter. Anyone who enjoys Japanese art will enjoy this book.

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Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Melanie Trede

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the most stunningly beautiful book I own. The pages are glossy with color photos of Hiroshige's artwork based on views of the town of Edo.

Utagawa Hiroshige was a Japanese artist from the first half of the 19th century in the genre of "ukiyo-e", which literally means, "floating world".

Hiroshige painted everyday life, the good, the bad, the ugly in the village of Edo in rich watercolors of blues, pinks, greys, and greens. Each painting is a feast for the eyes.

The commentaries of each print is in English, French and German and describe what is happening and what to look for. I found this very helpful because there were details I did not notice until I read the commentary which brought it to my attention. Also, it explained the action in the print which I would not have understood.

There is action and drama that transpires in every print, yet the colors and form exert only calm. It is a paradox but makes Hiroshige's paintings so successful.

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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan retold by Rui Umezawa and Something Wicked from Japan: Ghosts, Demons and Yokai in Ukiyo-e

Here is the overture to Handel's Messiah.  I thought maybe we could listen to this Oratorio over the next few weeks, if any of you feel so inclined.

Guess who got a new little monster?  Me.  After the tragic loss of Cosmo, I was granted a second chance.  We went to the store to get fish but instead left with this little blue blizzard.  Say hello to Sophie Grace.  I couldn't come up with a female detective whose name I liked and Sophie fits her spunky nature and Grace...well, she's a Quaker...get it?

Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old JapanStrange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan by Rui Umezawa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Strange Light Afar is a collection of traditional Japanese folktales of the supernatural retold by Rui Umezawa. It was a good companion to the Ukiyo-e art book I have, which I will also review. Ukiyo-e are Japanese paintings by master artists dealing with ghosts, demons and Yokai (supernatural monsters) as their subjects. I had read the art book first so when I recognized certain folk tales in this book I went back to my art book to see the painting illustrating the same story. Many of these stories were performed as Kabuki (classical Japanese drama). The paintings often illustrate the real life actors who portrayed the different characters

There are eight stories in this collection that deal with greed, murder, friendship that lasts beyond the grave; beautiful, bewitching supernatural women; while showing the everyday culture of the Japanese people from peasants to royalty throughout the history of Japan.

While I found Mr. Umezawa's writing style a bit clunky, almost juvenile, (of course he's translating so I shouldn't judge too harshly), I did like how he retold all of these stories from the third person limited or first person. What made this effective was how so many of the narrators, especially the ones talking in first person were not aware of their character flaws, but clearly reveal it to the reader by their words and actions. This was a clever way of allowing us to study the psychology of people who truly cannot see how brutal or self-absorbed they are, but can only perceive how they are treated.

And it is quite subtle. One character is truly evil and ruthless, but can only see himself as the victim. Another is impressed with how "good" and "loving" he is without realizing that his motives are selfish and even cruel.

All of these stories are sad. They are about broken hearts, betrayed trust, or the abused and even murdered. Evil abounds in these stories, but so does a strong justice that is meted out to the evil doer.

Finally, each chapter has an illustration of the story by artist Mikiko Fujita
Those interested in traditional Japanese culture and a better understanding of Ukioy-e will enjoy this collection of stories.

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Something Wicked from Japan: Ghosts, Demons & Yokai in Ukiyo-E MasterpiecesSomething Wicked from Japan: Ghosts, Demons & Yokai in Ukiyo-E Masterpieces by Ei Nakau

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was such a delightful book. All of you who like paintings of the supernatural and are interested in the Japanese concept of things that go bump in the night, will enjoy this collection of traditional Japanese art about, well, ghosts, demons and yokai (supernatural monsters).

The book is not coffee table size, more 8' by 10', but all the paintings are in color and have both full and detailed views. Also, each painting is accompanied by an explanation of the story depicted and the Kabuki actor who is painted in as the character.

The subject matter is scary, exciting, and suspenseful. The paintings are dramatic with rich color and highly expressive postures and facial expressions.

Something Wicked will intrigue and spark your interest the stories behind these paintings and perhaps have you looking for books on Japanese folk lore.

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Collected Stories: One Night in Brazil to The Death of Methuselah by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Here's something  little different.  At night when I'm trying to get my birds to sleep and a little writing in as well, I play music that is a little more reflective and in the background, so as not to intrude upon my thoughts.  This is called The Spin by Greg Haines.

Collected Stories III: One Night in Brazil to The Death of MethuselahCollected Stories III: One Night in Brazil to The Death of Methuselah by Isaac Bashevis Singer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last of three volumes of stories Isaac Bashevis Singer collected and were translated from the Yiddish into English.

Singer was a Polish Jew who moved to the United States. These stories are a combination of local stories from the villages he lived in while growing up in Poland and later his years in New York and occasionally other countries as well (like Brazil).

Most of his stories are from the perspective of eyewitness accounts. He narrates the story someone else tells him. The other person is a part of the story in that they start with a little background as to how the narrator met the other person, before recording their particular story, and finishes with an epilogue as to how the story teller's relationship ends with the narrator.

The stories are told with such convincing, powerful voices that I wondered if they were truly stories told to him by other people.

Many of these stories run along similar themes: adultery, persecution, life in a Jewish village, marriages and the intricate relationships, mostly complicated and tragic, inside the families there.

Most of the characters are desperate regardless of wealth or poverty. They all seem to be seeking some kind of meaning in their life through material gain and sensual relationships. Singer concentrates on the will of man, how it is not really free, but enslaved to its own selfish desire, while it devours the person as he or she runs around in circles, chasing his or her own tail, trying to satiate the lust they are tormented by.

Of course, the story is the same for all humans, since humans have the same nature regardless of culture or country. But this tale is told in the context of the Jewish culture, the Jewish plight, and the history of Eastern European Jews as they lived in the old country and also after they leave the old country and try to survive and find joy in the new one.

His stories are poignant and acute. The human tragedy from the Jewish viewpoint, at least as told by one man.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Life of a Counterfeiter by Yasushi Inoue

Well, this is not classical, but it was what I was listening to when I wrote this review:  Deezer Session by Agnes Obel.

I have lately become interested in Asian art and literature, particularly from China, Japan, and Korea, but increasingly Vietnam as well.

 I've been not only looking at the traditional, but also the 20th century paintings of artists from these countries.  It's fascinating to see how art expression develops in different countries and how they start to overlap as all countries become more global.

I do not mean that all modern works of art look the same, although I would say that modern painting is not immediately recognizable as coming from a particular country, but that is OK.  It is still a valid form of expression and, while traditional art may be more distinctive to our eyes, due to the isolation of countries from each other in previous centuries, I still can perceive particular cultural influences on even the abstractions that are produced on canvas by artists in this century.

Life of a Counterfeiter (Pushkin Collection)Life of a Counterfeiter by Yasushi Inoue

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really believe that Yasushi Inoue has become one of my favorite writers. This small book contains a novella, Life of a Counterfeiter, and two short stories, Reeds and Mr. Goodall's Gloves.

Each story is told in a calm thoughtful and also compassionate way. Inoue based his stories on real life and his deep interest in other people shows as he describes, in the first story, his journey to discover who the mysterious Hosen is, a counterfeiter who sold his own paintings under the name of a famous Japanese artist.

In the second story he hearkens back to fragments of a memory of an aunt who lived with his family when he was very young. She apparently had "compromised" herself and was sent to live in Inoue's small village with his family until she married the father. This aunt is written about in his book Shirobamba.

The final story begins with Inoue walking through a Western Cemetery and coming across the gravestone of a man with the name of someone who helped his grandmother years ago. This granny, not really his grandmother but the mistress of his great- grandfather, is another character in Shirobamba. I'm glad I read Shirobamba first, a story about Inoue's childhood in pre-WWI Japan, before this book, because it enabled me to better appreciate the characters.

None of these stories are adventurous, but each one contains a quiet memory, perhaps not exciting, but profound to the author and, thanks to his poetic writing, becomes as profound and beautiful to us as a biographical haiku.

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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach tranlated by Willar R. Rask

Here is Jean Rondeau (can that really be his last name?) playing Bach's Chaconne.  Not everyone likes the harpsichord and it does not have the variety in dynamics and color the piano has, which is why it was eclipsed pretty quick after the invention of said piano.  But there is definitely a timbre that is all the harpsichord's own and I think Rondeau shows great powers of expression.

The other night I was going for a walk, deep in my own thoughts.  Then I looked up and turned my head to the left.  Here is what I saw:

Glad I had my phone.  I started snapping.

Every now and then it pays to get out of your head and look at the world around you.

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature - New and Expanded EditionMimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature - New and Expanded Edition by Erich Auerbach

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will not to attempt to review a book of this scope. I will briefly say that Auerbach's intention was to show how literature through the ages interpret reality. He starts with Ancient Greek saga and compares it with Bible epics and shows the different intentions in each.

He moves on to the lore of the middle ages and the impact Christianity had on that literature. He also analyzes the enlightenment and gives one of the most piercing and scathing observations about Voltaire's work. I must say I enjoyed Auerbach reinforcing what I had always thought about Voltaire, namely that the author creates fantasy worlds to prove his enlightenment points. Voltaire loved stretching reality out of proportion and depicting people as buffoons as if this really showed how things were and why his personal philosophy held water.

Another observation he makes about several authors from Voltaire's time to the 20th century is how the Bourgeoisie become the universal scapegoats as to what is wrong with the world. And who is condemning and holding them in contempt? Author and artists from the elite wealthy class who consider it immoral that the middle class should work hard for the material comforts that they, the elite were born into.

His final essay is about Virginia Woolf and really all I learned is that I do not find her a particularly interesting writer. He quotes great swathes of her "To The Lighthouse" which seems bogged down in trivial minutia.

This is a valuable read, but also a weighty one and I am sure someone more intelligent than me could do better justice in reviewing it.

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