Archive for Painting


Language and Meaning

Language and meaning

I have just returned from a brief trip to Korea. I had learned the Hangul alphabet, but my vocabulary was limited to some rudimentary phrases. I could read but I could not understand. This led to some thoughts about language and meaning. My posting will take a roundabout course, beginning with a Korean scholar from the Silla dynasty. Be patient: I shall try to find some meaning before the day is done.

Choe Chi Won (857-925?)

At the age of 12, Choe Chi Won (Hangul 최치원; Chinese 崔致遠; literary name 孤雲, Go-un, “Lonely Cloud”) was sent from Korea to study in Xian (Chang’an), the capital of the Tang dynasty in China. There he learnt the practices of Confucianism and the arts of poetry and calligraphy. He passed the Imperial Examination at the young age of 22 years, and rose quickly through the ranks of the Chinese Civil Service.

However, the Tang dynasty (618-907) was slowly coming to its end. In 874, Huang Chao had initiated a rebellion against the Emperor. By 880 he had taken control of the capital and assumed the throne, calling himself the “Emperor of Qi.” Choe served as the secretary to the Tang general Gao Pien in his campaign against Huang Chao. By 884, the rebellion was finally defeated and the Tang emperor Xizong reinstated in Xian.

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Giving Offence

tout est pardonne xbCharlie Hebdo

A great outpouring of sympathy and solidarity followed the assassination of the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo. A million people gathered in Paris in silent protest. The motto Je suis Charlie was promoted across the world. The magazine refused to restrain its irreverence. The cover of its first issue after the attack showed the Prophet forgiving the blasphemy against him (Tout est pardonné) and supporting Je suis Charlie.

Nevertheless, most Western newspapers did not reprint either this cover or the earlier cartoons that had precipitated the assassinations. Their rationale was that these would unnecessarily offend those who believe that any depiction of the Prophet is sacrilegious. For example, despite the opposition of some of its own journalists, the Toronto Star decided not to publish the cartoons:

We could run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. There is a strong news rationale for doing so. But there are important reasons of principle not to do it. Just as we would not publish racist or pornographic images, we will exercise our judgment not to print the cartoons.
We will not print them because we have too much respect for fellow Canadians of Muslim background. We will not send a message that their way of being Canadian is less acceptable or less valuable than that of any other citizen. (Cruikshank, 2015).

The opposing viewpoint is that the act of terrorism itself justifies the further publication of the offending material. Otherwise we would be submitting to censorship by intimidation rather than by principle:

If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. (Douthat, 2015)

As the weeks passed, there has also been some acknowledgment of the offence (e.g. Tariq Ali, 2015). Not that this could in any way justify the violence. Just that in a civil society one should respect the beliefs of others. Not to do so, particularly when the others are in a minority, is to demean them. It is far better to mock those in power than those without.

Furthermore, the vaunted freedom to satirize the beliefs and actions of Muslims is clearly out of balance with the strict limitations placed on any criticism of Jewish beliefs or history. It is far easier to defame that Prophet than to deny the Holocaust.

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The human mind creates pictures, tells stories, and invents explanations. Sometimes these activities are closely linked to a real world, sometimes they rise freely from the imagination. Nevertheless they are usually attuned in some way to truth. Science creates testable hypotheses for what might happen. Art is much less closely tied to the real world but still helps us to understand it.

For various reasons human beings also create false things. The intention is to deceive. The motives are various. Sometimes the fraudster is looking for personal gain. Sometimes she wishes to make others look like fools. Sometimes he just does it because it is possible. This post considers three famous fakes.

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Frost and Sun

solomon pater 1872In 1873, Walter Pater, a fellow at Brasenose College in Oxford, published Studies in the History of the Renaissance. The book contained some previously published papers and several new essays on the poets, painters and philosophers of the Renaissance. The concluding chapter reworked some comments from an earlier paper on the poetry of William Morris to provide a summary of Pater’s aesthetic philosophy. This combined a skepticism about anything beyond our immediate sensations, an agnosia about any higher power or any life beyond our present mortal span, and a delight in the pleasure that comes from experiencing beauty. The goal in life was to enjoy each moment as fully as possible:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, –for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the sense, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. (Pater, 1893, pp. 188-189)

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Numinous Experience

This post considers the nature of the human experience of the “numinous:” the sensation that one is the in the presence of something beyond comprehension or control. The term is difficult to define. Other words that overlap in meaning are “sublime,” “sacred” and “transcendent” when referring to the source of the experience, and “awe,” “reverence” and “ecstasy” when describing the state of mind induced.

tao te ching 71 borderThe numinous is an essential component of religion. However, the scriptures warn that understanding the numinous may not come easily. Verse 71 from the Tao Te Ching (dào dé jīng,The Book of the Way of Virtue) by Lao Tzu claims that

zhī bù zhī shàng
bù zhī zhī bìng

The Chinese characters go from top to bottom and from right to left. Red Pine (2009) provides a direct translation:

To understand yet not understand
is transcendence
Not to understand yet understand
is affliction

Perhaps the words mean that we should try to understand what we do not know because not to do so leads to suffering. However, I may miss the sense as much as I mar the pronunciation when I try to speak the words. Read more

Wine-Cup Immortal

li bai portrait tokyoLi Bai (701-762 CE), also known as Li Po, was one of the famous Tang dynasty poets who called themselves the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup (an irreverent allusion to the Eight Immortals of Taoism). Li Bai wrote prolifically, and over 1000 of his poems survive. Much of his life is mythical, the stuff of novels rather than of history (Elegant, 1997). He was a devotee of Taoism, a fine swordsman, and a great lover of wine. In his youth he served the emperor. After becoming involved in one of the rebellions, however, he was exiled from the court. He then spent much of his later life wandering “beyond the gorges” in the hinterland of Imperial China. Legend has it that he died drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the Yangtze River, but his death was perhaps a suicide. The illustrated portrait (from the Tokyo National Museum) was painted by Liang Kai in the early 13th century. The seal in the upper right corner signals that the painting was owned by Anigo, an important official in the Imperial court of the Yuan dynasty.

Appreciating Chinese poetry requires seeing as well as hearing. The beauty of the calligraphy is as important to the poetry as the music of the words. The poems are therefore difficult to assess without some feeling for the characters in which they are written, since these allude to meanings beyond those directly expressed by the spoken words. This post therefore begins with a few notes on Chinese characters.

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Sense of Sin

Regret is an essentially human emotion. We make mistakes. If the mistake is without serious consequence we may just feel foolish; if it shows us as less than ideal we might feel shame; if it causes others to suffer we feel guilty; if it contradicts the law of god we feel a sense of sin. This is an overly simplistic taxonomy of what might be called the negative social sensations, in contrast to such positive sensations as friendship, compassion and love.

Social sensations provide the basis for religion. In the Eastern religions, our fate (karma) in this life and in later reincarnations is determined by how well we have followed the way of justice (dharma). In the monotheistic religions that come from Abraham, however, justice has a personal edge. Wrongdoing becomes a sin against God’s law and incurs his wrath.

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Point of View

Point of view is an essential concept in both philosophy and art. In philosophy, point of view highlights the problem of conscious experience. To understand the consciousness of another individual we must be able to experience that individual’s point of view. This may be partially possible among individuals of the same species and culture. Yet, as Thomas Nagel (1974) points out, this becomes next to impossible when the individuals use different perceptual processes. Bats determine where things are in space by perceiving the echoes of their own ultrasonic sounds. We can track the sounds as they are emitted and received; we can record the response of the bat’s neurons to these sounds; yet we will never really understand what it is like to be a bat.

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Journey of the Magi

A blog for the season. One of the most vivid and intriguing Christmas stories concerns the visit of the Magi from the East:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. (Matthew 2: 1-2)

In 1461 Benozzo Gozzoli completed a sequence of frescos depicting the Journey of the Magi for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. Illustrated below is the first of these paintings. A crowd of important people follow the Magi toward Bethlehem. At their head can be recognized the great lords of Florence, Sforza and Rimini. Among the crowd are diplomats and scholars from the Byzantine Empire (see previous blog). Indeed, one of the Magi is thought to represent the Emperor John VII Palaeologus. The painting commemorates the Council of Florence (1439), when representatives of the Eastern and Roman Churches had met in an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile their doctrinal differences. The Byzantine visitors were probably as exotic to the Italians of the 15th century as the Magi were to the Jews of the first.

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Late Byzantine

The Byzantine Empire began with the founding of the city of Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 CE. By the 12th century Constantinople was the largest and richest city in Europe. Byzantium maintained its glory until the sacking of of the city by the forces of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. After this the Byzantine Empire existed only in fragments. The Ottoman conquest of the Constantinople in 1453 CE ended the empire, replacing Eastern Christianity with Islam.

The art and architecture of the Byzantine Empire is justly famous. Buildings such as the Hagia Sophia taught the world the use of space; the mosaics of Ravenna, Venice and Palermo gave the Christian religion its iconography. This is the Byzantium of Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium (1927)

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

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