The Keshiki Round Here is Not Profound Enough

There’s a kind of project in which I’ve found myself involved – trying to connect my internal emotional life to my internal rational life and the external emotional world. I haven’t been very successful at this, but it feels psychologically necessary.

When I was a 15/16 year-old in south-east England, i used to clamber up the North Downs and look out, back, south, over the High Weald of Kent and Sussex. But mainly it was to look away from its stifling political and cultural conservatism in commuter belt england, away to somehow manage and understand the usual teenage morass of feeling, sex, intellect, creativity and boredom that was incoherently bubbling away in me. It was a desire to be in a city, or at a university, to be in love with exotic people, and discovering and inventing new spaces in which to exist. That world was not actually to be found where I was looking, unless it was out of sight and over the channel, but in the space into which I was looking, both internal and beyond.

I was reminded of this feeling reading this piece on perspective and spatial power in Japanese and Chinese art, in particular this part, which quotes from The Tale of Genji:

Genji climbed the hill behind the temple and looked off toward the city.  The forest had receded into a spring haze.  “Like a painting,” he said.  “People who live in such a place can hardly have anything to worry about.”  “Oh, the ‘keshiki’ around here is not profound enough,” said one of his men.  “The mountains and seas in the far province should help you gain real progress in your painting”…

The landscape qualified here as being “like a painting” is the scenery with tree tops perceived here and there through the veil of haze.  Because they are not thought to be so profound, they must not be very distant.  But these tree tops perceived in different places constitute the distant range, and between the viewpoint and this distant range “the forest recedes into a spring haze” (keburi-wataru:  take note of the use of the above mentioned verb wataru suggesting spatial extent)

The essay is about the treatment of the middle-space, between foreground and distance, between the nearby tangible, audible range, and the distant visible range, between where I was sitting on the high downland, and the place where my yearning reached, the place where I would ‘gain real progress’ in my painting… or, for me, written art.

It notes that in Western Renaissance perspective (distinct from more generalised notions of perspective) comprises the placing of objects in a field of geometrical straight lines, such as the tiles of a Dutch interior, or the perspectives of a plaza or colonnade. This perspective is, the writer stresses, an urban technique, for the context of human activity, a meaning that persisted even into its use in the painting of landscapes*

Is it the case, then, that what could connect a teenage boy’s yearning to actual becoming is the urban context? Those are where the lines connecting the here with the there are legible, clear, part of the infrastructure, of learning, jobs, transport to other people, libraries, knowledge, the melting pot, of the market square, or colonnaded plaza, of general spatial and existential legibility, where the practical sciences of renaissance of self-fashioning are available for use.

In the rest of the essay the writer covers the treatment of that middle distance in Japanese art. The way the same middle distance connection, the from-here-to-there, from near to far, is managed. First the essay distinguishes sansui, literally ‘of mountains and waters,’ from Western landscape painting, in that it explicitly depicts the natural world as a different category to the human world and its concerns, even where it may contain lonely characters traversing its realm.

Then the writer takes the term keshiki, specifically Japanese term denoting landscape painting but semantically distinct, and covering different bases from western landscape depictions (termed fukei). Keshiki literally means ‘the colour of ki’, the tone or colour or the feeling of a scene, of the energy that fills a space (or ‘landscape’). The essay then suggests in the poetry of the 13th Century (before any legacy of painting) the notion of Keshiki became yoked to that of Watari, meaning to go over to the other side, a spatial implication… from here to there, and a temporal implication… a duration, a longing.

It is a concept closely related to a humid climate that produces much fog or haze.

This is the fog or haze or other indeterminate space that separates the near from the far, the tangible from the intangible and longed for, occupied by, and giving spatial form and tone to the cosmic energy of ki.

The essay goes on to relate how the poetic relation between keshiki and watari was realised in painting for the first time in ukiyo-e, ‘particularly the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige’ from the 1700s. I must admit that as I was reading the essay, my impression of what the author was talking about was more in line with the gimcrack scroll in my bedroom, or flattened, cloud interspersed images from chinese restaurants, calendars, rather than the specific examples of foreground/background flattened images of ukiyo-e presented.

cheap chinese scroll showing mountains and waters and mists, hanging on my wardrobe
what i thought in my head this whole concept was about
what it’s actually about

Like Genji, that which I wanted to achieve took place not in the connected space of the urban, but in the ki space of the clouds and fog. It required a sort of magical energy to get me there.

During the same period when I was regularly sitting on the Downs looking out, one of my key convictions about writing and art was that it should consider the same unities that classical art had. However, this did not mean, for instance, everything having to take place during a day or whatever, but that as an author you should not be creating energies out of nothing, when changes take place in the plot or your writing. There had to be some mutation of the existing energies you had created, a dynamism, a economy of energy in the dramatic expression, a pictorial coherence. Magic, and the fog of ki, is discontinuity. Its transformative energy comes out of nothing material, visible or tangible, or is derived, like alchemy, via daemonic mechanisms or beings.

In fact, getting from the me sitting on the downs, to the me sitting here has been nothing like any of that. I find myself now in an odd process of triangulation. I have moved, through mists and and later through more tangible and useful perspectives (education, work), and can look over to myself on the downs, mists in between, and realise a need to bring that figure with me, to find my way back, take him by the hand, retrieve him. Because he is not looking towards where I am now, and in fact there is a need for us both to navigate by feeling through the mists again. The keshiki round here is not strong enough.

*(i think the argument around the usage of the word landscape is a bit fuzzy in the essay tbh, and the dynamics of its development are rather different to the ones described, particularly when it comes to the notion of the ‘picturesque’, but i haven’t got the memory of the detail or more importantly the relevant books to go into it here – put a pin in it for later).

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