Basho and Breugel


WHF2003 Holland – Ion Codrescu

Two Approaches to Nature

Ion Codrescu
Constantza, RO

At first sight, it might seem surprising to make a connection between Basho and Bruegel. The former belongs to the world of poetry, the latter to the world of art. Basho wrote his poems and poetic prose in harmony with the traditions of Oriental aesthetics wherein man, like the grass, the birds and the clouds, is under the influence of the same forces which govern the whole universe. Bruegel created a cultural space in which “man is the measure of all things”. Despite the temporal distance and distinctive characteristics of their arts, in each of which the understanding of the linguistic or plastic sign is in accord with the tradition that generated it, the spirits of the two great artists overcome these obstacles, passing through many barriers. Regarding their ways of watching nature, there can be found convergent points.

When reading their biographies, we notice some similarities: both travelled a lot, both were deeply educated and the climax of their artistic creativity occurred in the last decade of their lives. After their deaths, both at around the age of fifty, each left artistic legacies to be carried on by their disciples. Bruegel made a pictorial synthesis between Flemish tradition and Italian Renaissance; Basho merged the models of Chinese classic poetry of the Tang and Sung dynasties with those of the tanka and renga poetry created by his Japanese forerunners.

Without intent to treat the matter exhaustively, I shall try now to reveal just a few angles from which Basho and Bruegel approached nature. The two approaches, one belonging to a painter and the other to a poet, proved to be vast enough to explore the many various aspects of nature, which became painting and poetry. Even if the approach of the Western artist revealed a  different sensibility from that of the Oriental poet, and even if their artistic language is not identical, nature as depicted in their painting and poetry exudes the same kind of mystery. Why shouldn’t we consider these two approaches complementary and congruent, and not antagonistic? In the twentieth century, Bruegel was rediscovered as a painter of cosmic nature, while Basho’s poetry, discovered by the Occident, stopped being the exclusive possession of the Japanese and became known to the whole world.

Bruegel’s interest in working ‘after nature’, or making naer’ tleven (in Flemish) sketches, reminds us of these words reportedly from Basho:

…haiku is simply what is happening here and now.

The Japanese poet advised his disciples to go to nature if they wanted to learn about it:

Learn about the pine from the pine; learn about the bamboo from the bamboo.

In his journal ”The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel” (1687), Basho wrote:

One thing permeates Saigyo’s tanka, Sogi’s linked verse, Sesshu’s painting and Rikyu’s tea ceremony. That is the spirit of the artist who follows nature and befriends the four seasons. Everything he sees becomes a flower, and everything he images turns into a moon. Nature is the true guide-mark. Let’s return to nature.

This quotation clearly shows Basho’s concept of art, life and the universe, his feelings about the relationship between artist and nature. Poetry, like Oriental painting, was a form of communication with nature, which permitted not only the author, but also the reader or onlooker to identify himself with the universal harmony, with the vegetable and mineral worlds, with creative energy. Anthropocentrism is unknown in Oriental art; man is not the measure of the universe, but is part of nature. And man integrates himself, like all things irrespective of their dimension, in an eternal cycle. Basho shifts his attention almost imperceptibly from the poet’s level to nature’s plane and vice versa. The images juxtapose naturally by similitude:

the sound of hail –
I am the same as before
like that aging oak

 by contrast:

under the same roof
courtesans, too, are asleep-
bush clover and the moon

or by synaesthesias:

the sea darkens
and a wild duck’s call
is faintly white
People, the birds, the plants and the moon make a whole. Did not Paul Klee compare the artist with the trunk of a tree? What a coincidence: Basho took his pen name from a banana tree planted by his disciples near his hut in Edo; and in a haibun, he compared himself with an old tree which bears bitter fruit.

Like the trunk of the tree” – wrote the Swiss painter – the artist accumulates what comes from depths and sends it further, and nothing else. He neither serves nor commands; he is an intermediary… Beauty has simply passed through him.

Bruegel was trained in the Christian and anthropocentric traditions of European art. But in his presentation of nature and the placement of man in the universe, the Flemish painter’s compositions resemble,  in certain respects, Oriental cosmocentrism. His journeys enabled him – just as they did with the Japanese poet – to gather an immense amount of material which he used later in his works. His landscapes have a cosmic perspective of infinite extent. Those high mountains and deep valleys depicted in some of his drawings are not integral parts of the Flemish landscape. The temporal and the atemporal, the fusion of the transient with eternity, the place of the tiny and finite thing in the infinity of the universe, the relationship between changeable things and eternity –- relations so frequently met in Basho’s haiku –- can also be found in many of Bruegel’s paintings. He who looks at the paintings of the Flemish painter rediscovers the living and expressive forms of nature, his panoramic and well arranged compositions, and a world ruled by laws that cannot be changed or mastered by man. He follows his way and fulfills his destiny in a resigned manner, understanding the mystery of this world. In ”The Fall of Icarus” the three characters (the fisherman, the shepherd and the ploughman) witness, powerlessly or indifferently, the drama of the man who aspires to transcend the limits of his destiny.

Playwright and author, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing distinguished the spatial characteristics of graphic arts and the temporal character of literature in Laoocon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. On the other hand, paradoxically, haiku and Bruegel’s paintings attempt to transfer these attributes to each other. In other words, Basho’s haiku express only one time, one moment, the ”here and now”, while Bruegel’s paintings, reveal the ”temporal” aspect, plane after plane creating another reality with significant details, but which cannot be properly understood on simultaneous examination. The visual becomes temporal for Bruegel, while the temporary in Basho’s haiku becomes simultaneous.

the first snow –
daffodil leaves bend
under the weight

the rainy season –
the silkworms are ailing
in the mulberry field
Like Basho’s poem, Bruegel’s painting presents the same unity and dynamic tension in each element of his composition. The same mystery penetrates the rocks, the plants, the birds and the same force is revealed in them all. In his ”Hunters in the Snow”, the onlooker loses himself in the immensity of the panoramic landscape; each element of nature seems to be a prisoner of coldness and silence. Here, the unity between man and nature is clearly expressed. The human face loses its individuality when confronted with the cosmic vision of the world and in the face of the overwhelming performance of nature.

Beauty can be found both in Bruegel and Basho in the unity of nature, in each thing despite its size.

drenched passersby:
they too are beautiful –
bush clover

in the rain the autumn full moon
all night long
I paced round the lake
Reading Basho’s haiku, we discover nature throughout the four seasons — from spring to winter, from birth to death, and from regeneration again. Bruegel is not far from Basho in this respect, too. His painting presents nature almost programmatically, while showing man’s relation to nature in a seasonal succession. The winter season provides the framework of many of his paintings: ”Hunters in the Snow”, ”Massacre of the Innocents”, ”Adoration of the Magi in the Snow”, ”Census at Bethlehem” and ”Winter Landscape with Bird-trap”. For Basho, seeing nature dressed in white is an opportunity for reflection on its simple beauty, whether the subject of his poem is the crow, horse or chrysanthemum. Anything in nature is worth watching, and in contrast with the white of the snow, our attention is commanded even more:

we gaze
even at horses
this morn of snow!

how beautiful
the usually hateful crow,
this morn of snow!

If James Kirkup writes of Basho:

…his eye sees like the painter’s eye…,

could we dare to say that, due to the various effects of snow and ice, Bruegel’s winter paintings are real poems? In all these ”painted poems”, man is an ephemeral passerby in the world who submits to the laws of eternity and beauty of nature. And what remains of the dreams of brave warriors? Maybe, this is the question asked by Basho when he visited a well-known battlefield.

only summer grass grows
where ancient warriors
used to dream!

this autumn
why am I aging so?
flying towards the clouds, a bird

Sensitive to both resonances of the moment and stillness of reality, impressed by the trembling of a blade of grass or by the immensity of the landscape, feeling sorry for the destiny of any insignificant thing, full of anxiety caused by human sufferings, Basho and Bruegel watched nature on a vast inner scale which knows many variations from immaculate white to deep black. Their care for detail and exact observation determined that the two great creators not exclude humour from their way of approaching nature:

waiting for the snow,
wine lovers’ faces –
a flash of lightning

Another subject tackled with integrity by Bruegel and Basho is ‘death in the universe’. Intensely iconographic features, such as the cloudy, heavy skies, the implacable destiny of things in nature, the delirium and the unquiet dream and the grave scale are found in ”Christ Carrying the Cross”. Basho uses only a few deft ”brush strokes” in his poems to suggest the arrival of death for nature and man:

on a journey, ailing –
my dreams roam about
over a withered moor

because, as Roland Barthes writes,

…haiku brevity is not formal: haiku is not a complex thought reduced to a short form but a short event which finds its right form in a touch.

Viewing ”Storm at Sea”, in which Bruegel used strong accords of blue-green and browns, we are reminded of Basho’s poem:

the rough sea –
extending toward Sado Isle
the Milky Way

Although there is no Milky Way in the Flemish painting, the onlooker shares the same cosmic vision of nature, the same anxiety in front of continuous change. It is evident that painting has its own ways of expression, while poetry has its own ways too. Therefore, at the end of this essay, I shall not gloss on Leonardo da Vinci’s statement,

Painting is a poem that can be seen,

because I was not interested in finding out analogies at a level of artistic forms, so varied in poetry and painting, as far as expression is concerned. Instead, I limited the focus of my attention to that level where the creative spirit of people, though belonging to different epochs and cultural spaces, meet at convergent points. Basho’s haiku and Bruegel’s painting cannot meet, but in a spiritual plane, that place which only great artists can reach.

Note: The English version of Basho’s haiku belongs to Makoto Ueda ( Matsuo Basho, Kodansha International, 1990)


This entry was posted in Basho, Classics, Haiku, Vol 3-2 December 2003 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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