Snow White | Sense: How colour engages us
Left panel of the Pine Trees screen (Shōrin-zu byōbu 松林図 屏風), c.1595m, six-fold screen, ink on paper. Hasegawa Tōhaku. Courtesy Emuseum, Public Domain, Wikimedia
White is not only about emptiness, it is also about what might be. When it can become any colour, it can be anything. Zen is about living in each moment, in the here and now, about emptying oneself to fully experience life – communing with nature in all its forms, listening not imposing. Buddhism and Shintoism teaches that there is no Creator Being: this jewelled planet is not a poor facsimile of a promised land. We are born here, we die here, our lives are now and living itself should be an act of worship. There is possibility in every moment: the Japanese term for this latency is kizen, and above all other colours, white is kizen. During the Heian era (794-1185) yamato-e (Japanese painting), grew into a deeply meaningful art form with strong philosophical ties to Zen. The apogee of this, sumi-e (ink painting) reflected the simplicity and importance of empty space, central to both art and religion.
Sesshu Toya’s haboku sansui, painted in 1501, is a deceptively simple, miraculously still scribble of ink wash. In a few expressive lines it depicts huts shivering above a lake with a suggestion of mountains looming from the mist behind. It is one of the Great Treasures of Japan. Two generations later, the master of the Momoyama Period, Hasegawa Tohaku, painted another Treasure: Pine Trees (1595), an inked image so effective the cold mist surrounding the trees pours towards the viewer even in photographs.
In the late 1700s Maruyama Okyo – a pupil of the Kano school – brought a new dimension to Japanese art: perspective and naturalism, even going so far as to do life drawings, considered shocking at the time. He was one of a new breed of artists influenced by newly-available Western art, and his work is a harmonious mix of western techniques with an eastern aesthetic. Maruyama was an eclectic painter, ranging from gorgeously lifelike birds and trees to exquisite sumi-e. One of his masterpieces, Pine Trees in Snow, painted using the tsuketate technique, uses only dark and light shadows to create an extraordinary sense of the weight of snow.
Maruyama was fascinated by things half-seen, and painted ghost portraits (images of dead family members) on commission, and folk art, developing the yurei-zu (supernatural art) school of painting. Japan’s vivid and complex folklore, and Shinto’s emphasis on spirits, means Japanese culture has space for a vast range of yurei, literally yu – faint or dim and rei, spirit. They are roughly analogous to western ghosts, essentially remaining spirits who haven’t quite made it ‘beyond the veil’. Yurei are neutral, sometimes mysterious and beautiful, often sad, occasionally vengeful. They always wear white, the Japanese funeral colour, and require living help to help them pass on by performing a task – sometimes as simple as passing on a message. They are so faint you can barely see them; they become more real as you get closer; much like snow white itself they require a human interaction to ‘exist’. In The Ghost of Oyuki (1750), Maruyama’s exquisite portrait of his dead mistress, she is half there, half not; her eyes downcast, Snow White skin and white robes fading into nothingness, as though being slowly obscured and lost to this world. In Sense of Snow my aim is to capture this sense of fading, of a veil being drawn over ordinary objects by the natural action of snow, painting shadows. Trees, slopes and rocks are rendered otherworldly and mysterious like the yurei, reduced to soft black and white like sumi-e. Pine trees shimmer in mist, echoing Hasegawa’s work, mountains disappear as though under Sesshu’s softest brushstrokes.
Snow white is a dichotomy, both the colour of everything and the colour of nothing: as Steven says, the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”; a blank sheet where you can write your own fears and fantasies, your future hopes and past ghosts.