On Friday, I fell in love with a painting.
I will resist comparing it, which is one of my weaknesses, as in, it is the seventh greatest painting ever, by the 43rd best painter. It is better than Caspar David Friedrich, but not so good as Caravaggio. It is the best painting of Mountains ever and the eighth best nature scene. Oh Bah! I say even as I attempt to place it somehow, shout its virtues, exult, advocate, justify, explain, place, convey, elevate.
But maybe there is no more than this:
I love this painting.
Well, there is always a little more.
Very early in the morning I was walking through a temporary show of Japanese Art at my local museum. I had seen the show before, but this time it was so quiet, perhaps because it was dawn, of all strange and mysterious times to be in a museum, and I had seen the painting before and liked it very much, but this time was different. This time I looked at it. And then I kept looking at it. And then I looked at it some more. And the more I looked at the painting the better the painting seemed to get, the deeper I fell into it. The more I felt the air of it, cold and clear and slightly damp. The more real became the rising mist, the splash of water, the ragged stone and everlasting cliffs, the tiny great trees standing above an abyss of a mountain gorge falling forever below. I spied the rough little houses on the brief, high mountain plateau, bordering a fierce little stream, and I saw the path that climbed out of the plateau to disappear into the mysterious passes above. I walked the path.
What is the painting?
South Mountain in China by Fukui Kotei. Oh, you have not heard of him? You have never heard of the great, immortal Fukui Kotei? Who has not heard of Fukui Kotei!? Whose education has been so neglected? What theft of spirit and magic, inspiration and illumination has been stolen so from those not hearing of Fukui Kotei and South Mountain in China?
Don't worry. Or worry with me, for I hadn't heard of Fukui Kotei either, and still know little about him. And here I was thinking that we had heard of everyone great, knew all their stories, had our chance at them all. But it turns out the world is nothing like that. Another surprise for us both, forgotten delights everywhere. The painting is all ink, black, with two smaller areas splashed with white, both in the places where there are waterfalls. And all of it is on gold leaf. The painting is black ink over gold, and the gold has a way of being luxurious and dazzling in that way gold has, but it also has a fabulous way of receding, becoming even more tensionless behind and in the black than all the whites we are used to in this sort of work. And so the world it creates becomes somehow more present. Once you cross the border, the plane of the painting, and enter it, you are more fully in it. You are disappeared into gold itself. The whole thing is on two, continuous, six panel screens, almost six feet high and running right to left for well over 20 feet. Would you like to see it?
So would I. But I am not in the same room as it, and so we both must be deprived of that pleasure.
Oh you, me, with our fancy looking-glass internet, our books of all the art history, all our magical photography, and all the lies that everything is known. Here is one for us. This piece cannot be photographed, or, it can be, but little will be left of it. It must be seen, in body and space, and there is nothing else for it.