Letter VII

LETTER VII (SHANGHAI)   36″ x 36″   2010

This painting is of a woman looking into a garden. Or, more exactly, it is a painting of pen marks she made when she wrote a letter 85 years ago describing her garden.

The original pen and ink writing, dated September 30, 1925, describes the letter writer’s newly acquired house on Rue Massenet in Shanghai. I have a bundle of old letters, private letters written in Shanghai and other places in China between 1925 and 1938. She was then about 35 years of age, born in the Canadian prairies, married to a man who held official positions in various Treaty Ports in China. In Shanghai the British, Americans, and French controlled areas in the city known as concessions that were essentially foreign-controlled territory. After a series of wars in the 19th century by Britain, France and Japan to break Chinese resistance, Shanghai became the commercial base of Western domination in China. This imperialism involved a complex system of territorial concessions, legal immunity, and the right to base troops and gunboats in the coastal cities and up the rivers into the interior. By 1925 anti-foreign feeling led to strikes in the Shanghai factories and a boycott of English trade. In May of that year, a few months before this letter was written, troops under British command fired on protesting students and workers in the International Settlement, killing eleven. In April of 1927 the city was the scene of fighting when the communist party was suppressed, an event that marked the beginning of a revolution that lasted two decades until Japan and then the western powers were forced out of China. This letter places a woman in an entirely domestic interior scene, looking out into a garden, but she is in fact part of an occupation.

My painting incorporates one sentence from the letter, where she describes looking from her writing desk into a small courtyard:

writing this at such a nice big flat desk in the verandah sun room with the door opening onto the compound, which is only a tiny square garden but from where I sit, it looks like a corner of a lovely garden

Her new house was a replica English stucco and timber residence in a deeply troubled city, caught up in the British empire’s great seedy enterprise, where foreigners like her are mainly feared or hated, and for good reason. She gives a penetrating look into the courtyard, where there is a tangled garden, which she imagines is part of a grander garden. The garden is falling into shadow, with the colours asserting themselves against black in the late afternoon or evening.

I began a series of “letter paintings” in 2004, a year after the start of the Iraq war. By then the American invasion and occupation had become a human catastrophe – Abu Ghraib, the assault on Fallujah in November of 2004, Haditha in November 2005. There is a strange disconnect between the “normalcy” of our lives and the parallel brutality of these events. The old letters written in the 1920s and 30s reveal a similar divide between private life and what was happening at the time.

I was attracted to the shapes of the ink pen marks in these letters, more than the meaning of the words. I liked the hollowed-out valleys of the alphabet in “w”, “u”, and “v” and the ovoids and sometimes perfect circles in “a” and “o”; the slightly opened mouths of the “q” and “g”, and the undulations of “n” and “m” which are like foothills in a distant landscape. A diagonal stroke falls gently down from the top of the vertical of “d” in “verandah” to the open, upper lip of “a”. The verticals, loops and transitions have a beguiling imperfection – they fall lazily down here, the cadence quickens there, the dots and dashes are cast recklessly into space.

The marks of the pen are indelible traces of a person’s passage through life, like characteristic gestures of the hand, or the tilt of someone’s head, or the rhythm or tone of a voice. Transmuted into the undulating lines and dashes of her pen, the woman looking into her garden is become not a figure in the foreground, but just a vertical blue line (the letter “I”) immersed in space just to the left of a violet diagonal, a single mark.

Everything else that is unimportant is deleted – her appearance, the pretentious architecture of the colonial part of the city and the wealth of the interior of her house. She is placed in a proper balance with the magnitude of the terrible things that were being done at the time. We are left with the shape of her letters, effortless and barely conscious.

Writing has a beguiling power, apart from its utilitarian use. An obvious example of a complex art built from the structure of language is Chinese calligraphy. An 18th century European commentator said of Chinese that by means of the graphic power of its written characters, “ideas not subject to the senses were exhibited to the sight”. Chinese writing has special affinities for artists. The variety of forms is vast. Each character is composed with multiple brushstrokes – many involving eight or ten strokes, some eighteen strokes or more. In cursive “grass” script, which is an extremely abbreviated style, the brush reduces the recognizable form of the characters to an almost completely abstract action, a display of ink marks that seem to abandon the needs of language and becomes a composition solely concerned with movement, space, texture, the qualities of the ink, disequilibrium and balance. The content of the text itself might be a subject of little consequence. Among the most acclaimed works of Chinese Calligraphy are brief letters of the 4th century calligrapher Wang Xizhi, one of which concerns delivering a gift of oranges to a friend.

The English painter David Jones (1895-1974) is an example of a western artist who, late in his life, constructed his paintings around the forms of language. He began his career as a painter just before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The war became the defining event of his life. He fought in the trenches on the western front. He was a poet as well as a painter. In 1937 he published In Parentheses, a book-length poem based on his experience in the war.

Until the 1940s, Jones’ work was representational, often figurative, usually complex in its content of images and allusions. After about 1945 he began to experiment with a new form of painting in which he used watercolour and brush to paint the forms of Roman lettering. He used texts in the Latin language, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and sometimes English. One reason he used Latin and other languages was so the the viewer would “see” the forms of the letters, and not just “read” them. He was concerned with the abstract qualities of the individual lettering and over-all design. His “painted inscriptions”, as he called those works, are both abstract and at the same time capable (by means of the text) of conveying the complex ideas and relationships he felt with Europe’s historical past and the shared culture that the Roman Empire had given to Europe. He looked to heal the terrible European civil war of 1914 -1945. By the 1950s many other painters had made a break with representational images and turned to complete abstraction. David Jones followed a different path. It seems that for Jones the deep past of European history and its redeeming myths offered some atonement for the horrors of the 20th century wars that he had lived through. He sought an art-form that would allow him to put aside imitation of the visible world, but that gave him the capacity to convey complex ideas and feelings drawn from his sense of historical continuity.

David Jones’ feeling for the graphic power of written language is revealed in an incident described in his poem, based on his experience in the 1914-1918 war. Soldiers are marching towards the front, and see a sign posted at the entrance to a small building where the troops are allowed to rest. There is writing on the sign, identifying regiments and platoons that had already passed through that place on their way to battle. Jones describes how the marks convey a dimension of time. The succession of mark-makers point to the continuity of human experience, albeit through terrible loss and destruction:

You bunch together before a tarred door. Chalk scrawls on its planking … initials, numbers, monograms, signs, half-erased, of many regiments. Scratched out dates measuring the distance back to antique beginnings … Numerals crossed slanting indecipherable allocations earlier still. More clear, and very newly chalked, you read the title of your entering, and feel confident, as one who reads his own name in a church pew. ‘2 platoon, B Company’, in large ill-formed calligraphy, countermanding the shadowy ciphering of the previous occupants …



David Jones, In Parenthesis, New York, 1963. On the paintings of David Jones, see The Painted Inscriptions of David Jones, Nicolete Gray, 1981. A critical discussion of In Parenthesis is found in Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford, 1975.

“ideas not subject to the senses were exhibited to the sight”: comment by Sir William Jones (1746-1794), a linguist and scholar of Sanskrit who learned Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Chinese. This statement is taken from An Anthology of Translations: Classical Chinese Literature, Minford and Lau, Columbia University Press, 2000.

For Wang Xizhi’s letters, see: “A Letter from Wang Hsi-chih and the Culture of Chinese Calligraphy”, Robert E. Harrist, Jr., The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliot Collection, Harrist and Wen C. Fong, The Art Museum Princeton University and Abrams, 1999.