Rachel Cohen

Hokusai Turned Sideways

Frederick Project: Colors and History

Hokusai Turned Sideways

Katsushika Hokusai, Courtesan and Paper Lanterns, 1798/1800, the Weston Collection, Detail. Photos by Rachel Cohen

Because it was behind glass, I could only photograph it sidelong.

It came as a great relief. In the Art Institute of Chicago’s show of 2018, Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection. Room after room of courtesans – the highly-paid ones in their graceful rooms which they still could not leave unless a patron could be persuaded to purchase their contracts; and the ones who worked the docks at night, with stalls for quick transactions – all posed for a viewer’s eye, and, also, for my eye. The figures were very beautiful, and had a complicated agency, they had dressed themselves, were color artists of the first order, a few had written poems which were included, in their handwriting, what western nude had ever written on her canvas, still, there was a fundamental transaction, and it was wearying.

Then, Hokusai. She is turned sideways.

She is looking at something else, the air, her world.

If you look at her without her feet, the picture comes to pieces, so that her walking, her stepping forward on her own sandal is crucial to the understanding.

She is a whole being, and I can join in being her – feel a freedom in my thoughts when I try to think as her, all intelligence is possible – how is this conveyed?

The scroll is carefully mounted and framed by fabric, like the quilted edges of the Faith Ringgold story-quilts, and, like them, it is given an interpretation in language that is included. Above her hair, calligraphy:

Hokusai’s friend, Santo Kyoden (1761-1816), who frequently collaborated with him, has written the poem, which the Art Institute translated:

         Gold for the release of the oiran
         wagered against chrysanthemum waters
         from an enchanted valley!
         Fine Sumida wines alone
         fill the cup of the novice courtesan.
             Santo kutsu Kyoden

The wall text explained. Two kinds of wine. One, magical, the chrysanthemum waters, associated with the highly-paid and knowing courtesan, the oiran, who might be able to get a patron to purchase her release – gold for the release. But the novice courtesan, she had merely Sumida wines, from the Sumida river that runs by the Yoshiwara district, the red-light district of Edo. Constraint acknowledged.

Another liberty is the boldness of the brushwork.

And another in the way the scroll shows the night, it must be night. In the clothes and the lantern. Their black ink absorbs the night and radiates it.

The lanterns are made of the same paper that the scroll itself is painted on. They are upstanding, and let you think about paper, and how it can show the night.

The lanterns become one of the frames – like the fabric, like the poem – a way the picture can refer to itself. They are part of what gives the picture, and the woman in the picture, and me, looking at the picture, a first-person stance, freedom of mind.

Blue of Paul Cézanne

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Ceacutezanne detail of The Bathers Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Cézanne, The Bathers 1899/1904, Art Institute of Chicago, detail Rachel Cohen

Yesterday, I wrote about Beauford Delaney’s blue, green, and yellow – the way the blue filters down through the trees; the radiant effect of combined green and yellow. Today, I want to pursue blue.

I’ve taught Rebecca Solnit’s essay on blue from her Field Guide to Getting Lost, and I’ve taught Maggie Nelson on blue in her book Bluets. Blue runs through many fields of study – those two writers and many others have traced its threads in landscape, in vision, in philosophy, memory, sorrow, tranquility.

Today I’d like to think about blue as a color of resolve.

My mind skittered for a bit. But it settled on Cézanne. That is a way to talk about blue and resolve. Which Cézanne? The Bay at L’Estaque here at the Art Institute? That unfinished oil I’ve written about that’s at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge? Or the mountain, St. Victoire, that he painted so often. The St. Victoire my mind is most familiar with is the one at the Metropolitan, with that long slow curve of rising brown. Mont Sainte-Victoire, ca. 1902-1906.

Surely I have photos? A kind of desperation to get to them all, photograph them again with their accumulating areas of blue, the blue over blue. Panic of separation. Forty-five minutes of searching through photos, no, it seems I never took pictures of that. How many hours have I stood in front of it. The reproduction is impressive, the Met allows you to focus in on brushstrokes, but it doesn’t seem like my own impression, I feel it effacing my memory. So not that painting. And not the Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque c. 1885 at the Art Institute either.

We were to go to France this spring. I was going to see paintings and talk with curators, go to Aix, and see, for the first time, the bay at Estaque, Mont St. Victoire. Small losses; nevertheless, impediments to understanding; better to acknowledge.

Here’s what I can find today. I did photograph the painting that hangs next to the Bay on the wall at the Art Institute. Here is the museum's photo of the The Bathers 1899 / 1904.

Four photographs.

And perhaps this is not so bad. Because you could look at them all day.

The lines around the figures are of a deep blue, I think it has cobalt in it. Without those lines the figures would dissolve. And blue is also the atmosphere, the air, sky, and water of the painting.

What I want to think about is this. There are two meanings of the word resolve, both from the French resolver. One began in the 14th century. As etymonline has it:

Late 14c., "melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid;" intransitive sense from c. 1400; from Old French resolver or directly from Latin resolvere "to loosen, loose, unyoke, undo; explain; relax; set free; make void, dispel.”

Why is explain with loosen, set free, undo and dispel?

The second meaning came a century later:

From early 15c. as "separate into components," hence the use in optics (1785). Meaning "determine, decide upon" is from 1520s, hence "pass a resolution" (1580s).

Here the sense of determination, the courage and clarity to proceed. This is what I will think about today, and write about again tomorrow – how is Cézanne’s blue holding both of these senses of resolve?