Basho, A Cherry Tree and Meaning

After having put down Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches for a while, I’ve returned to it to (finally!) finish it up. About 20 pages toward the end, I read this:

“As I sat reflecting thus upon a rock, I saw in front of me a cherry tree hardly three feet tall just beginning to blossom — far behind the season of course, but victorious against the heavy weight of snow which it had resisted for more than half a year. I immediately thought of the famous Chinese poem about ‘the plum tree fragrant in the blazing heat of summer’ and of an equally pathetic poem by the Priest Gyoson, and felt even more attached to the cherry tree in front of me.”

And I thought of how much of an impact human craft has on a person’s perception of the world, specifically the impact of literature on the individual and the objects s/he encounters. It’s the same idea here as Adam in Genesis naming the plants and animals of the world: they mean little to us until we give them meaning. Basho appreciates the beauty and hardiness of the cherry tree on its own, but remembering poetry written about other trees makes it significant, endears it to him. I think of features of the landscape that have meaning for me — the mourning dove, the toad, the darkness, the birch and willow — and realize that behind those images are stories, poems, songs.

While I’ve long thought that there is no inherent meaning in anything, and that we all layer meaning like a lacquer over our lives, desperate to preserve the present that too soon becomes the past, I rarely feel how deep it goes. We’ve all been conditioned to love some things more than others, fear things more than others, disregard things more than others, and it’s largely literature — old and new — that quietly dictates which shall be loved, hated or ignored. And so nature is a mirror, reflecting our thoughts, fears and desires back to us. We respond by thrusting more of ourselves onto the object and, believing it’s a dialogue with nature, split our monologues in two.

Nightmares in Oil: The Art of Francis Bacon

I first found out about Francis Bacon in an oil painting class during my sophomore year of undergrad. Around midterm, the professor gave us a list of artists’ names and told us to pick one, study that person’s work, choose one piece to recreate and then do an original painting in the style of that artist. I went home that day and Googled each artist; I remember Lucian Freud — another great Modern painter and friend of Bacon — was on that list as well, but I can’t remember the others. Bacon’s work both terrified and thrilled me (it seems that Burke was right about the sublime, yes?), so I signed up next to his name on the roster.

A little background info on Bacon: Born in Dublin to parents of British descent, Bacon (1909-1992) was, from childhood, both asthmatic and effeminate — two seemingly trivial traits that shaped his life. His father, a racehorse trainer and veteran captain of the Boer War, sought to turn Francis into the British masculine ideal, forcing him to go hunting in spite of Francis’ violent allergies to both dogs and horses. Father and son struggled with each other throughout their lives; the elder Bacon was often enraged by his son’s effeminacy and affection for dressing up, and ultimately disowned him — exiling him from the family estate — after catching Francis admiring himself in front of a mirror, wearing his mother’s underclothes. Over the years, Bacon lived in varying levels of poverty, relying when he could on the support of older, richer men (even working for a time as a “gentleman’s companion”), as well as whatever menial work he could find, until garnering success as an interior designer and decorator. He didn’t begin painting regularly until he was in his 30s.

It seems to me that it’s precisely those beginning 30 or so years of pain and struggle that gave his work, as the Wikipedia article about him puts it, that “bold, austere, graphic and emotionally raw” quality. Bacon was fascinated by disease, the Crucifixion, and hanging meat, and was a firm Existentialist, having spent much of his 20s reading Nietzsche. He sought to represent in his work the violence of life and yet described himself as “optimistic about nothing” — that is, optimistic about everything, particularly the little things in life that are often taken for granted, that are considered “nothing.” Wikipedia makes a very perceptive connection: “[Bacon’s] case of asthma can give reason to the constant ‘optimistic about nothing’ ethos… unlike most, he valued entirely such a seemingly trivial thing as breathing.” It’s that passion for life — all of it, every moment — paired with his images’ haunting, dreamy horror that draws me to his work again and again. It appeals to the raw, emotionally violent part of me, which I think resides in all of us, however small and hidden in the darkest recesses of our subconsciouses. The following are some of my favorite Bacon works. (In the interest of space, I’ve made the images small and have not captioned their titles. Scroll over the images for their titles and click on them for larger views.)

And, for the curious, my humble tribute done in oil painting class:

For snippets from a great interview with Bacon, check out this page. And for more work by Bacon, click on this link.