Friday, May 23, 2014

Sea of Ink - Richard Weihe (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

I read this at the start of my recent holiday, it was wet and cold enough to more than justify a fire and an afternoon on the sofa which in turn led to a fair amount of dozing off which rather added to the dream like quality of this book. It's 51 short chapters (very short, none are more than a couple of pages long) and 11 pictures which together form a portrait of an unusual man.

Born as Zhu Da, a minor prince of the Ming dynasty, in what might best be described as interesting times, he grows up in the sheltered formality of palace life until the old dynasty crumbles and the Manchurians take power. Zhu Da who already shows artistic promise disappears into a monastery where he spends the next 40 years as a monk and learning his art. During this time he changes his name time and again until eventually he is Bada Shanren a master painter. There is also some debate about his sanity. Contemporary accounts describe him as mad but current thinking seems to be that his madness was a conscious manipulation of his behaviour to avoid the new regime.

Each chapter is an episode from his life be it a piece of history, an anecdote, the description of a picture, or a meditation on how art is created and it's all rather more like reading poetry than prose, more because of the way that many of the chapters could be separated from the book and still feel like something complete. Having read it all it's easy to dip back in and out at random points and find something thought provoking, and sometimes beautiful, to mull over.

Bada Shanren's painting is so stripped back it's almost abstract, a few lines and smudges which
quietly resolve themselves into something figurative. More than that for images made of almost nothing there's a tremendous sense of the artist behind them, but what's even more remarkable is that Richard Weihe (and Jamie Bulloch) seem to do the same thing with words. It's a magical book (I see now that I'm looking at the inside cover I'm by no means the only person who feels like this about it) there's nothing flashy or obvious about it but it get's under your skin (it certainly has mine) and sticks there.

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