dr. aziz's foreword to sumi-e nudes: the integrity of a single stroke
by robert aziz
For Marc Bauer-Maison, 2009 proved to be a fateful turning point for his then well-established career of some twenty-four years as a watercolourist. While on a trip to his native France, from his residence in Canada, Bauer-Maison took the opportunity to attend a class on the nude being offered by the renowned, Sumi-e master painter, Alain Bonnefoit. There can be no doubt that when Bauer-Maison walked into Bonnefoit's class in Valence he knew he was in the presence of a great artist. What Bauer-Maison didn't know, however, was the extent to which his twenty-four year career as a watercolourist had prepared him for this moment. What he didn't know was just how ‘ripe' he was, to use a Zen term, for the experience of the teaching he was about to receive from this master painter. Far more than he could have even begun to imagine at that time, he, the student, was ready and the master had now appeared.
From the time of Bauer-Maison's first exhibition in 1986, nature, as encountered in landscapes and floral expressions, had largely been the subject of his watercolour paintings. His earlier works were diffuse, blue and green depictions of seas and skies, ‘marine watercolours,' as they are called. Then, taking inspiration from the watercolours of the 16th Century artist Albrecht Durer and the works of contemporary artists like Sybil Rampen, Bauer-Maison's work turned to the study of plants, trees and animals. His work was now significantly progressing, yet there was something, he intuitively knew, still missing. "For some reason," as Bauer-Maison relates, "I could not find freedom in those two ways. My artwork was too rigid; it showed movement, but it was not alive." Then something happened. Bauer-Maison took the critical decision to abandon altogether the preparatory pencil work and allow his brush alone to capture what he saw. The result was immediate. By way of this direct, experiential encounter between brush and flowers, brush and trees, his flowers, his trees, to his astonishment, came alive. Subsequent to this, as Bauer-Maison explains, "my hand began to acquire the simplicity and spontaneity of an Asian style." In eschewing the preparatory pencil, inhibition gave way to release. In eschewing the preparatory pencil, Bauer-Maison's hand, and with it his stroke, was delivered from its inhibitive dependence on an ‘external,' as it is put in Zen parlance, into a direct, experiential encounter with nature in its suchness. A Zen poem, from the Kamakura era of 12th century Japan, speaks directly to this progression. The text reads:
The bow is broken,
Arrows are all gone –
This critical moment:
No fainting heart cherish,
Shoot with no delay.
The Japanese word sumi-e has enfolded into it two words, one of which denotes ‘black or charcoal ink;' the other of which means ‘picture or painting.' This, of course, is the outward form of sumi-e; its spirit is an altogether different matter, as its centuries-old relationship with Zen would more than suggest. As with Zen, sumi-e is not so much about what one is doing, but how one is doing it, which is to say, the consciousness one brings to bear on what is being done. Similarly, sumi-e is not so much concerned with the depiction of the manifest forms of life, as it is concerned with the depiction of the essences of those forms. As with Zen, sumi-e at once seeks a direct encounter with, and experiential depiction of, Reality in its suchness. For both traditions, in this regard, whether it is a question of encountering or depicting Reality, less is more. For both Zen and sumi-e, in this regard, the integrity of the stroke with which the less is executed is everything, whether that stroke is delivered by a swordsman or artist.
What follows is a remarkable collection of sumi-e nudes by Marc Bauer-Maison. The depiction of the nude is something with which artists and those studying their works have struggled for centuries. We cannot imagine another artistic presentation that has so consistently attracted controversy. Indeed, we cannot imagine any other artistic endeavor that is so dogged by the perennial question as to what constitutes its sacred and profane forms. Such controversy notwithstanding, the nude remains the most accessible of works of art to the general public, even when it comes to its more abstract and refined presentations. This fact is both encouraging and problematic. It is clearly encouraging to think that the enduring fascination within our culture with something as everyday as nudity would provide such a point of access to the art world. It is disconcerting, on the other hand, to imagine that as a consequence of such seeming familiarity, the artistic presentation of the nude might simply be reduced to what one already knows, rather than serving to lead and inform. The splendor of sumi-e, by contrast, is that it is pretty much impossible to reduce it to the familiar. If it is going to mean anything to us, we need to allow ourselves to be led by it.
Now although in its minimalist-style, sumi-e draws us into the details of the body, importantly, it does not trap us in them. The part, in this regard, rather than serving as an instrument of the objectification of the body as it so typically does, becomes an artistic point of access to the whole, which is to say, the spirit and essence of the individual. This is the artistic challenge of the sumi-e nude, which, not unlike the process of life itself, must come into being, spirit intact, by way of a dynamic process that eschews perfection, while embracing wholeness. Herein, I will conclude, resides the integrity of a single stroke.
Sumi-e Nudes: The Integrity of a Single Stroke by Marc Bauer-Maison to be released March 2011. Please visit http://www.bauer-maison.com
Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 120.