The other day, talking about how beautiful Japanese kimono are with a friend, he said that he thought it was a shame that we too don't have more chances to dress up in the styles of a hundred years ago.
Dressing in the styles of a hundred years ago...
After pausing ever so slightly to imagine what exactly that would look like, I found myself smiling and thinking immediately of Mi Fu. Madman Mi, as he was also lovingly known, served for a brief time at the court my lover the Emperor-- for indeed, the two shared much in common, and I like to imagine that maybe they were even good friends.
Born in Shanxi (Hubei?) Province, it is believed that Mi Fu's family was also of Sogdian origin-- a fact that Peter Sturman suggests Mi Fu went out of his way to conceal-- even changing one of the characters used to write his name (to give it a more Chinese sound). Thanks in part to his mother’s connections at Court, where she served as a Lady-in-waiting to the Consort of Emperor Shenzong, Mi Fu was able to enter the official bureaucracy without ever having had to take any of the official examinations.
Despite his excellent connections, though, Mi was never particularly "career-oriented" --as he remained till the very end devoted to the creation, study and collection of art. In fact, to this day, Mi Fu is considered to be one of the greatest connoisseurs of art in Chinese history. His passion started while he was still quite young, and he has described in his writings how his mother more than once sold her ornamental hair combs in order to fund his collecting while he was still only a child.
To call him an eccentric would only be an understatement.
For he walked the streets of the capital dressed in the fashions popular hundreds of years earlier during the Tang dynasty, because he claimed he admired the styles back then.
He was also known for introducing himself and bowing to especially fine specimens of garden rocks which were of the type he collected; addressing them politely as “elder brother.” Greatly admired by Emperor Huizong for his knowledge and style, he was appointed Director of the Calligraphy and Painting Institute at Court where the Prime Minister was said to have observed, “Mi Fu is the kind of person we must have one of, but cannot afford to have two of!” Even though his knowledge was formidable, his personality was such that he didn’t last long at Court.
Spending his later years roaming the waterways of the country on his houseboat, named “The Mi Family Calligraphy and Painting Barge,” he managed to acquire an immense collection of important works of calligraphy, painting, ancient bronzes, and other antiquities. His acquisitions were sometimes of a dubious method as he was known to have replaced some originals of borrowed works with replicas, and on more than one occasion threatened suicide to friends who wouldn’t agree to sell their masterpieces to him. He was also reported to have stolen the plaques from temple gates because they provided fine samples of a particular style of calligraphy. His foibles were usually forgiven, because, of course, he was considered a genius. What Mi Fu was unable to acquire, he managed to at least find the opportunity to view, and so his knowledge of Chinese art was encyclopedic.
When I think of Mi Fu, I always smile for I, too, like his style. With his huge personality and great appreciation and knowledge of art, like my Emperor, he is, in the end, forgiveable. Thinking of my recent conversation with the mysterious Professor A. Ku, I wonder if it could even be argued in Kierkegaardian terms that Mi Fu's thievery and conniving was just another case of the suspension of the ethical-- that is, it was all in the line of duty. For art was for Mi Fu, his life's Defining Commitment, absolutely defining him in the way all geniuses are defined by their art.
Mi Fu is the kind of guy I would love to go to coffee with-- but you will notice he was not selected to go to Paradise with me. Why? Well, perhaps I have grown tired of big personalities-- which I have noticed lately seem to come with their equally bad side.
My friend in the Hanlin Academy is also concerned with issues of character (人徳等) and says, "think about what the difference is between having a lot of personality and a lot of character." I believe perhaps it is true that character demands a kind of consistency-- in one's speech and actions-- and more, that such consistency itself demands a kind of restraint (rather than a leap into something new as in Kierkegaard, for example).
This is probably a famous anacdote but my tea sensei loved it. She said, Michaelangelo didn't sculpt images in marble as much as he simply cut away what was unnecessary and extraneous, thereby allowing that which was already present in the rock to come forth. She said that this was the Way of Tea. The removal of everything unnecesary or superfluous. Each movement has meaning, she said. "Do what comes natural to you" (I found, though, it worked better for me when I did the opposite of what came natural...!)
I know my Emperor would have been delighted if I had invited Mi Fu to Paradise with us.... but really, like with so many people with big personalities, I think the dangers were not worth the risk.
This is the best book on Mi Fu I have read. It is probably hard to come by now...
Above painting by Vietnamese painter Hong Viet Dung, Girl with Lotus Leaf. Below: Boy with Lotus Leaf
And, The World of Mi Fu's Art: another National Palace Museum wonder.
Parag Khanna had another great article in Foreign Affairs, Beyond City Limits. Wondered if the photo was by Michael Wolf (whose work I am a huge fan)--and then there is this funny meditation on cities by Glenn Gould (thanks M)