In the novel, a character designs jewelry or something like that, in an alternate America occupied by the victorious Japanese and Germans. A Japanese officer, or somebody like that, sees his designs, and says, these have wu. He explains that wu is a quality of intense itself-ness about an object. There is such an absence of divergence between what the object is and how the object seems, that to study the object is an opportunity to reach a kind of enlightenment about the nature of being.
The concept of wu is very appealing, as you can see, and can be applied to many things. Some chairs have wu; others do not have wu. A beautifully designed industrial object, following perfectly the form-follows-function principle, can often be said to have wu. A ceramic bowl of just the right width, depth, and texture, is a prime candidate for wu.
The concept of wu, of vivid itself-ness, is a forceful concept for still-life painters. The struggle to elucidate the soulfulness of objects starts with grasping the itself-ness of objects. For most still-lives to have life, they must first have wu.
David Hockney, in his extremely uneven book on the so-called secret knowledge of the masters, compares the still-life apples of Caravaggio and the still-life apples of Cezanne. He describes the unsatisfying quality of Caravaggio's apples in terms of how they "read at a distance" compared with Cezanne's apples:
This is a technical approach, and a useful one, but to me the important difference is conceptual - the difference is that Caravaggio's apples do not have wu, and Cezanne's do. Caravaggio's apples are beautifully, even obsessively, rendered. Every detail is perfect. But they remain in the realm of seeming. Cezanne's apples, blunt, simple, solid, move past the realm of seeming to the realm of being. They have wu.
A modern painter (about whom I will have more to say, eventually, in my discussion of object edges) who has followed in Cezanne's path is Giorgio Morandi. I had the good fortune to see an exhibit of Morandi's paintings at the Met last year, where I was dazzled by his still-lives of bottles, paintings like this:
These paintings, like Cezanne's, show amazingly crude brushwork up close. From a distance, they slip into perfection, perfect solidity and presence.
Sadly, this degree of wu seems to be almost unavailable to the more technical painter. Many objects can be painted beautifully by masterful painters, but they tend to lack that itself-ness, that necessity:
From favorite whipping-boy Bouguereau, whom I will remind you I actually like. But the lemons? Kind of meh, for my money.
Sargent, who knows what he's doing, embraces the crude when the wu of the object demands it (and many other times as well):
Matisse, who follows itself-ness through line rather than painted area, captures wu many times - including in painted area in his bowl of fish (visit this one if you live in Chicago, it's at the Art Institute):
Rembrandt has one of the most famous instances of wu in art history, and again, his rendering is crude. This is the celebrated gold chain that Aristotle wears in Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer:
The paint is splotched and slathered on, it's Rembrandt at his thickest.
I believe the crudity of depiction is deeply linked to wu. There is a way that fine depiction distracts the mind from the essence of the thing. Too much naturalistic verisimilitude cheapens the experience of the thing; it clutters up the perception with virtuosity, and seeming-ness. To reach wu, one must strip away the properties of seeming and seek the properties of is-ness.
Study this paper lantern in a Stephen Wright painting:
That lantern, with its shadows and its rip, is very crudely handled at the level of paint. And it is rich in wu. It could be nothing but itself; its intense itself-ness relieves us of distraction, of hazy vision and hazy understanding - it brings us into confrontation with an unadulterated quality of being which goes on to infect our perception of whatever we look at afterward. This humble paper lantern purifies us.
Now this all popped into my head because Charlotte, my wife, is no big fan of nudes. Which is to say, she likes them alright, but if you wanted to give her a painting for Christmas, say, you probably wouldn't want it to be a nude. Charlotte likes things, particularly simple, natural things. So, because I wanted to paint her a painting for Christmas, I started thinking about Morandi again, and I decided to try to apply what I learned from him to the problem of a seashell I had lying around the studio (it came back with us from Italy earlier in the year). This is what I came up with:
I was very pleased with this! I do paint things aside from naked ladies, but I've never been very happy with them. I just didn't care all that much. This time, I felt a sense of possession of the painting, as if it were something I would have painted anyway.
Trying to evaluate why I liked it, I recalled the concept of wu, and I thought, well, maybe I have finally painted a thing in such a way as to capture wu.
Now it just so happens that my mom and her husband had sent me a Harry & David gift basket at about this time, and in this basket there were some pears. These pears were not just green - they had some red spots. And they were so goddamned beautiful that I thought, well, really, I ought to paint one of them as well. So I did, with itself-ness in mind:
This also was very pleasing! This seemed very pear-like to me. As you can see, these objects are much cruder than my figure paintings usually are. But to me, they are very satisfying. In fact, I think I will paint some more little still-lives (these are 8"x8", oil on board).
I hope I have taken the first step toward having wu in my own work.
DISCLAIMER: As always, take what I say with a huge grain of salt. Plenty of counter-examples in art abound, and this model is not meant to be complete or exclusive. Consider the skull in De La Tour's Penitent Magdalene if you want to see my argument break down.