Thursday, December 24, 2009


In his novel The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick mentions a concept, wu, which has stuck with me for years now. Preparing for this post, I did a perfunctory bit of internet research, and it seems that Dick likely made up this concept and name himself.

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):

detail of the jar from The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

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.


  1. "Meh"-rry Christmas ... to wu!

  2. And a very wumy mehmas to yu tu!

  3. BTW - My blogs:

    Daddy Runs Fast (writing and running)

    The Dark Side of Twilight (writing and vampires)

    If I drew more, I am sure I would have a blog for that.

  4. Well hell, Pengo - I didn't know about that. I'll check them out! Thanks!

  5. Daniel
    Your problem is that with every painting where the fruit lack wu, the fruit are not the primary objects of the painting and are at least partially obscured. On the other hand the paintings that contain objects with wu either make these objects the primary objects or give them prime real estate on the canvas. So it is not a fair comparison.

    I agree that Caravaggio's apple lacks wu, but I realized that only after tearing my eyes away from those amazing leaves. Those leaves have wu. Futher, Bouguereau's lemons, I would argue, are too busy being held up by a woman's (very nicely painted) hands to have wu. In other words, I don't think he was trying to give them that quality since that distract/compete with the fullness of the woman's hands, not to mention everything else about her.

    Anyway, I would look at wu like this. If I can imagine what the apple tastes like, it has wu. If not, then it doesn't. With Caravaggio's leaves, I can imagine what they would feel like crumpling in my hands. Hence their wu. The apple is only there to be obscured by something about to fall apart.

    I guess my point in all this is that it's probably okay to lack wu with objects that are there not to call attention to themselves but to other, more important, objects on the canvas.

  6. Chris -

    This is a very insightful comment, and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to respond. I hadn't thought of the entire system in the terms you describe, and I think they're very valuable terms. They appear to be a sort of case-specific enunciation of the general principle of - figure out what's important in your painting, and don't emphasize every little thing equally.

    It is worth pointing out, though, that in the full Sargent painting, the jar is a very subordinate object; in the Steve Wright painting, the figure and lantern share primacy to a large extent; and in the Rembrandt painting, the eye goes immediately to the chain, but the chain is not necessarily the most analytically important part of the composition (I personally suspect that more of Rembrandt's approach to composition was scattershot intuition than most people seem to believe).

    The upshot is that subordinate objects can have wu, or maybe they don't need wu, as you say (and if you like leaves, Bouguereau does incredible leaves in some of his paintings - but the leaves exist in terms of translucence; his eye is ever on light, not matter).

    I also like your visceral description of wu in terms of reference to the non-visual senses by means of which the most powerful impression of the object is generally produced.

    Perhaps I will try to paint some dog poop with Chrisian wu.


    Happy new year!