Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Autumn Grasses and Cultural Glasses 秋草と異文化

 "The Culture of Dyeing"
by Fukumoto Shigeki
Recently I've been slogging my way through reading "Somé no bunka", literally titled, "The Culture of Dyeing". It's a relatively long book in Japanese (hence the slog) by Fukumoto Shigeki, a Dyeing Artist and author who trained at the somewhat conservative Kyoto City University of Arts in the late 1960's. The book is a philosophical look at the cultural history and relevance of dyeing in Japan. Fukumoto has some strong opinions regarding dyeing, which is making it an interesting read (e.g "frame a textile?! What are you, an idiot?"or "Japan is surely the only country who can boast such an accomplished Dye culture!"*translated with some creative licence...).


Back to Fukumoto and his strong opinions in a moment....but now for something completely different!!

Autumn Grasses in Moonlight by Shibata Zenshin

What do you make of this painting above Is it a nice painting of a pretty bunch of weeds? Or perhaps a wistful ode to the passage of life? ( insightful of you!)

Perhaps that all depends what cultural glasses you are looking through!

In Japanese there is the term "akikusa"秋草. It literally means "the grasses of Autumn"and refers to a stylized motif that can be seen in traditional Japanese paintings (as above!) and designs. It's a popular motif in contemporary Japan too, appearing on everything from Kimono to notepaper. 


尾形光琳の秋草図屏風 'Autumn Grasses Folding screen" by Rinpa School Master artist Ogata Kourin.

In it's most traditional conception, Akikusa tends to depict the so called, "Seven plants of Autumn"(seven being an auspicious number). These 7 are usually:

Pampas Grass - Chinese Bellflower - Maidenflower - Bushclover - Wild Carnations - Arrowroot - Boneset

These are often partnered with other set Autumn motifs such as the Moon, Rabbits, Red Autumn Leaves, or Chrysanthemums. 
But why go to all the trouble of painting 'a bunch of weeds' anyway??


Here's where Fukumoto's book comes back into the equation.

Something he suggests is that, unlike "the West", people in Japan have a tendency to appreciate the value of age and patina, as well as favour imagery that suggests ageing, decay and the cycle of nature. 

I think a wonderful example of this Japanese taste for the wistful is the akikusa motif. It is intended to evoke a feeling of melancholy and an appreciation of the passing seasons and impermanence. My Japanese friend described it like, "Akikusa is one of those "Withered Expressions" that Japanese people really love. Japanese people have long loved the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life: to sprout, grow, bloom, make seeds and then die". 


跡見花蹊の秋草図屏風 "Autumn Grasses Folding Screen" by Atomi Kakei

(Can I just say though, I get a bit annoyed when authors like Fukumoto make broad claims like "Unlike in the West where They think X, We Japanese think Y"? For starters, I really dislike the use of the term "the West". The two Kanji in this Japanese word (欧米)refer to the whole of Europe and America, and presumably in today's consciousness it has also come to include Australia. You can hardly make a sweeping generalisation about what "the whole of Japan" thinks, let alone put words in the mouth of a collective "West", comprised of at least 70 different countries, all with different cultures!! If Japanese authors are going to contrast the philosophy of their country to that of anywhere else, I wish they would at least be specific, rather than just throw them in contrast to some contradictory "other".)


I do tend to agree with Fukumoto that, especially in the past, Japanese culture has respected and revered the wistful passage of time but I don't think that an appreciation of the fading and melancholy is exclusively a Japanese past-time, as some would have you believe.

And don't forget modern Japan is notoriously fickle in her appreciation of the weathered and worn (Think, tearing down old machiya houses to build cookie cutter apartment blocks)...


Cootamundra Wattle, an Australian Native but notoriously spreads outside it's natural range = a WEED

All this talk of Autumn Grasses led me to wondering whether I could come up with some kind of Australian equivalent. We certainly have plenty of weeds...which, if you were wondering, differ from a "plant" in that they are malicious and unwanted; a species in the wrong habitat and trying to dominate it. Seems like another case of the right glasses, does it not?

I had seen a lot of different native and weedy grasses in the nature reserve near our house and set out to document some of them. Whilst it's actually Spring in Australia at the moment, vegetation dries out in the sudden heat and there is actually quite a lot of "autumn-esque" foliage around. Strange how the seasons are opposite to Japan but not really.

grasses and weeds as far as the eye can see!


I found plenty of weeds to choose from but I think I'd like to limit my "7 Canberra grasses" to the following:

Salvation Jane. A farmer's nightmare
but pretty when it forms a purple carpet over fields of grass. 

Lambs Ear. Looks like a cabbage, feels like a...lamb's ear.
Wild blackberries:
Prickly wild bushes that were supposed to have been
helpful for lost bushwalkers but are now a noxious pest.

Random dry grasses -
which Australia has in ABUNDANCE

Something which I don't know the name of,
but they are everywhere around Canberra
Another mystery weed- how cool are the floaty tendrils?

And finally, twisty vines of Hardenbergia,
with cute purple flowers.
Technically I suppose these are Spring Grasses but in future artworks, I hope they will carry the meaning of Japan's akikusa. Australians too, are capable of an appreciation for the wilting, the fading and the impermanent.

Finally, in an interesting plot-twist, I just found out that the Australian Bourke Parrot, all little and pink and grass-loving, is translated in Japanese as the Akikusa-Inko, the Autumn Grasses Parrot! What a way to bring everything back full circle :)

Bourke Parrots, a.k.a Akikusa Parrots!

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