Books: Cutting Back by Leslie Buck

image cutting back

In Cutting Back, author Leslie Buck chronicles her four-month stay in Kyoto at the turn of the millennium. Unusually, for a woman and a westerner, she was taken on as an apprentice at a big-name Japanese landscape gardening company (Uetoh Zoen).

There is something irresistible about this type of memoir, especially when the writer is trying to lift the veil from some very traditional aspect of Japanese culture. Liza Dalby in Geisha (1983) told the story of her move to Kyoto to train as an apprentice geisha; Kaoru Nonomura in Eat Sleep Sit (1996) described how he left his job as a designer for a year of training at a Zen Buddhist temple. Both books sold well, partly because they offer a glimpse inside cultures that are essentially hidden, but also because as readers we identify so readily with the hapless novice navigating the unknown.

Buck was not really a novice when she arrived: she had run her own landscaping business in California for several years. Yet following Japanese tradition she was automatically junior to the sixteen-year-old apprentice who had joined six months ahead of her. And he, being senior, was at liberty to give her instructions on the job, even though his inexperience meant he was getting things wrong.

Buck is a natural raconteur, and excels in her descriptions of life as the female American employee of a traditional Japanese business. She deftly draws out the humour in her encounters with clients and colleagues, and much of it is self-deprecating, as she herself struggles to meet their exacting standards and keep a grip on her natural exuberance.

Yet she is open about the more difficult aspects of her apprenticeship: the language barrier, the severe winter cold, the strain of being criticised by an unforgiving team leader. The narrative falters slightly when she turns her mind to her boyfriend back in California. The fact that she missed him was part of her story, of course, but so much less interesting than her day to day encounters with the Japanese master gardeners.

There is some discussion of pruning techniques and garden design, but much of this you could find in other sources (Buck references, for instance, Japanese Garden Design by Marc P. Keane). The book is based on the author’s journals and comes across more as a portrait of the people tending to the gardens than the gardens themselves. This means there is plenty to interest the general reader as well as those with a passion for gardening.

I did wonder, though, what happened once she returned to California. Did her Kyoto experience impact her work style or how she ran her business here? How did the boyfriend situation pan out? Overall, a light, warm-hearted read that presents a unique perspective on Japan. Recommended.

Cutting Back
Leslie Buck, 2017.
Timber Press, 280 pages, $24.95 (hardcover).

Cutting Back is available from May 3, 2017. I am grateful to NetGalley and to Timber Press for the chance to review an advance copy of this title.

Books: The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee


The Art of Rivalry by art critic Sebastian Smee is a biography with a difference. Looking at four pairs of artists from the modern era, it explores how they influenced one other. There is a single essay devoted to each pair, presented in alphabetical rather than chronological order: Freud and Bacon; Manet and Degas; Matisse and Picasso; and Pollock and de Kooning.

I liked this concept because it seemed to offer a new take on these giants of the art world. The decision to limit your focus to the impact of one particular friendship (or rivalry) allows you to go deep without dragging on too long. For instance, Degas outlived Manet by over 30 years, but those decades fall outside the scope of the narrative. The friendship between Manet and Degas was most active between 1867 and 1869, allowing you to narrow the scope even further, and investigate those years most closely.

Despite this structure, I didn’t find the writing as focused as I expected. The essay on Manet and Degas felt too drawn out, with such a host of supporting actors that the central thread was lost. The essay on Pollock and de Kooning concentrated heavily on the early parts of their lives, the years when they hadn’t even met.

I preferred the essays on the Freud-Bacon and Matisse-Picasso relationships. In each case, the narrative felt more streamlined and the story more compelling. The outsize personality of Bacon dominates the former. In the latter, it is the classic tale of artists competing for patronage that draws you in: Matisse and Picasso were both favoured by the wealthy Stein households (Gertrude and Leo on the one hand, and Sarah and Michael on the other), but their standing waxed and waned.

Given the initial premise, I wasn’t too surprised that Smee dwells less on the art and more on the social lives of the artists – many of whom were lecherous and dissolute. There is some careful analysis of individual pictures, which I enjoyed, but it is not the main driver here, and the colour plates are ungenerous. The reader is expected to know the works or to google them.

I thought Smee could have done more to highlight the resonances between the four stories, perhaps by adding a conclusion as well as an introduction. I found myself noting the same dynamics cropping up again and again, but in the main you are left to make the connections for yourself.

The Art of Rivalry
Sebastian Smee, 2016.
Random House, 390 pages, $28.00 (hardcover).

Books: Kimono for modern times


This elegant history of kimono focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries – of which the cover photo is emblematic. It shows a woman’s summer kimono with a design of plovers in flight over stylised waves, the design radiating outward from the centre front of the kimono. Dating to the years 1900-1925, the design is based on a classic motif seen in the printed pattern books 100 years earlier, but recalibrated for the modern age.

This is exactly what drew me into this book – the quest to analyse different elements of that transition from old to new, in the Meiji era (1868-1915) and beyond.  Japan was opening up and so much was on the brink of change.

Milhaupt’s narrative covers both technical aspects and social history: the growing use of foreign materials and technologies in kimono manufacture; the rise of the big Japanese department stores; and new advertising techniques, such as posters, pamphlets and women’s magazines.

She also explores more conceptual trends such as the popularity of the kimono in Europe and North America and its connotations there; and a new nostalgia in contemporary Japan for the vintage kimono of olden times. These broader themes are complemented by a stand-alone chapter that presents the individual histories of a handful of specific kimono designers.

Technical terms from the Japanese are used throughout and, though explanations are given, I think a glossary at the back would have been beneficial. The illustrations are excellent and eye-opening – there were many items I had not seen elsewhere. A detailed and interesting read, recommended for those with a passion for costume and fashion.

Kimono: A Modern History
Terry Satsuki Milhaupt, 2014.
Reaktion Books Ltd, 312 pages, $29.00 (paperback).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Books: Looking East by Helen Burnham

cover looking east

This slim but attractive hardback is the catalogue for the Looking East exhibition, held earlier this year at the Asian Art Museum. Introductory essays by Helen Burnham and Sarah E. Thompson set the scene, characterizing the cultural exchange between Japan and the West as a two-way process.

Japanese motifs and styles were popular and widely disseminated by the late 19th century, but the Japanese influence was one among many, and a given artwork may reference Japanese sources with the lightest of touches, or in a way that blends borrowings from other cultures too.

This approach is (unsurprisingly) more nuanced than what you take from the exhibition marketing, so reading the book helped to answer some of the questions I had when I reviewed the exhibition originally. The catalogue covers four main themes: Women, City Life, Nature and Landscape. The last section is my favourite, and concludes with a print by Yoshida Hiroshi of El Capitan, from his series The United States, a choice that integrates beautifully the Japanese and American strands of the show.

Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan
Helen Burnham, 2014.
MFA Publications, 128 pages, $29.95 (hardcover).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Below: Yoshida Hiroshi, El Capitan from the series The United States, 1925. Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper. Height 40.2cm; width 26.7cm. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Image at

yoshida hiroshi el capitan

Books: Listening to Stone by Hayden Herrera

book cover listening to stone

Sometimes it’s a joy to try something different. I knew next to nothing of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), when I picked up this recent biography by Hayden Herrera. It was a gamble of sorts, given that the book runs to nearly 600 pages, but I am glad I persevered.

Herrera covers the artist’s life story in extreme detail, drawing on archive research and interviews with those who knew him, especially Priscilla Morgan, his partner in later life. This gives a very full picture and presents the biographer with certain challenges.

The action moves backwards and forwards between different countries. There are so many love affairs I lost count (and interest), and numerous professional false starts. On five separate occasions he creates designs for different children’s playgrounds, only to have the projects (yes, all five) cancelled at the planning stage. I found the first third of the book much the slowest and enjoyed the reading more as I went on.

What really lifts this tome are the discussions of the sculpture and other works, including the set designs for Martha Graham and the Japanese-inspired gardens, such as the garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Herrera excels in her vivid descriptions and her crisp approach to interpretation. The pieces are mainly abstract, but she tells you where to look for a bird’s beak or a person’s arm, and these gentle hints enlarge your understanding, even from within the confines of a black and white photograph.

She also draws out certain lifelong themes in Noguchi’s artistic career: the tension between his American and Japanese backgrounds; his focus on the natural world; and his notion of sculpture as the shaping of space. Had this been a monograph, we could have had an essay on each of these, but instead Herrera lets them surface naturally, sticking to a chronological approach that can feel repetitive but is also more organic, more like real life.

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi
Hayden Herrera, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages.
$40.00 (hardcover); $25.00 (paperback).

Books: The White Road by Edmund de Waal; The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu

2015 seemed to mark the arrival of a new genre – the porcelain memoir. I read The White Road by Edmund de Waal and The Porcelain Thief by Huan Hsu within a couple of months of each other. The two writers approach their subject by quite different routes, yet both texts are essentially a blend of travel writing and autobiography, combined with judicious mini essays on the history of porcelain production.

Edmund de Waal made his literary mark with The Hare with Amber Eyes (2009), a very readable narrative of his family history set in Paris and Vienna, taking the family netsuke collection as its anchor. Having enjoyed the earlier book, I approached this one with high expectations.

However, The White Road is quite a different beast. It is incredibly diffuse, both thematically and in its prose. Without the very specific anchor of the netsuke, de Waal seems to drift from one alluring topic to the next, without offering much in the way of structure or argument. He covers Jingdezhen. Meissen. Wedgwood. Dachau. He visits everywhere that he writes about. He writes everything up in a somewhat breathless present tense, even the historical parts.

In the background, he tells the story of his own career as a potter. Again, the telling is kind of piecemeal, but I found this material fascinating – the journey from his earliest work (nobody would buy it) to his bespoke installations for museums around the world. The copy I bought in the UK was called The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, whereas the US edition has the slightly scary title The White Road: Journey into an Obsession. In fact, I think the US edition has the better title, because it acknowledges that this book is more than a porcelain travelogue, it’s very much his autobiographical journey too.

The White Road is definitely recommended, but be prepared for something long, rambling and idiosyncratic in style, more like a script for a film documentary than an art history book.

The Porcelain Thief, in contrast, has a more journalistic feel. The author is an American-born Chinese who relocates to China in a bid to find out what happened to his ancestor’s porcelain collection several decades earlier. He takes a job in Shanghai, working for his uncle’s business, and painstakingly interviews his relatives to help him reconstruct some of the family history. The sections with his redoubtable grandmother are particularly fine – she leads him a merry dance, telling him so much about some things, so little about others.

The narrative switches back and forth from his travails in present-day China to the travails of his family in the previous century, but Hsu keeps the two in equilibrium and writes with clarity about Chinese history and Chinese porcelain. His account feels disconcertingly honest at times, to the point where he doesn’t seem very likeable – his sexist comments on the dating scene in Shanghai, for instance; his ingrained hostility towards his cousin Richard (not a kindred spirit). This authenticity is the hallmark of the final section of the book, where there is definite bathos in a scene where the characters go digging up random sections of vegetable patch. Well worth reading, and full of interesting detail, but it does point up rather harshly the difficulties of pursuing this kind of quest.

The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 401 pages, $27.00 (hardback).

The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China
Huan Hsu, 2015.
Crown, 380 pages, $27.00 (hardback).

Books: Paper Cutting

cover paper cutting
I was delighted when I came across this book by chance in the local library. I had been meaning to learn more about paper cutting after a recent visit to the Ashmolean, where I encountered works by Chinese artist Bovey Lee (b.1969) (which I think will merit another post at a later date).

There are paper cutting traditions in both China and Japan that go back centuries. This work gives a very brief overview of the history in the introductory essay by Natalie Avella, then presents a compilation of work by 26 contemporary paper cutting artists from around the world.

Several Japanese artists are included. Kako Ueda (b.1966) makes fluid, complex designs with a sinister edge – a spider or a skull might be hidden in the tracery. In a similar vein, Hina Aoyama (b.1970) creates very intricate, detailed designs using a pair of scissors. Her images verge on the fantastical or surreal, with abundant floral elements.

Yuken Teruya (b.1973) uses everyday objects to create his artworks: cardboard toilet rolls are adapted to create a forest of miniature trees, and a paper bag from MacDonald’s is cut to make a tree with snowy white leaves. His work has a more political flavour, speaking to the depletion of the earth’s resources.

Of the many stunning artworks featured here, I think my favourites were by Yulia Brodskaya (Russian, b.1983) who uses a quilling technique, and Molly Jey (Swiss, b.1978) who makes landscapes inspired by nature – her white paper forest scenes took my breath away.

It’s four years since the book was published, so I imagine it doesn’t show the freshest, most up-to-date works by these artists, but there is certainly plenty here to enjoy and to marvel over.

Paper Cutting: Contemporary Artists, Timeless Craft
Compiled by Laura Heyenga, 2011.
Chronicle Books, 176 pages, £17.99 (paperback).

Books: Ming 50 years that changed China

cover ming 50 years

This colourful volume is the catalogue for the 2014 Ming exhibition at the British Museum. I have written before about the Ming exhibition and the 2014 Barlow Lecture by Prof Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) discussing the art in the exhibition, so I thought it was time to complete the trio by saying something about this book.

If you saw the show, this is of course an ideal way to refresh your memory, and it shares many of its strengths. Firstly, the sheer diversity of the material, from ceramics and handscrolls to furniture and lacquer. Secondly, the close examination of Ming contacts with other foreign powers, which includes all sorts of interesting material such as Korean maps, Vietnamese ceramics and illustrated manuscripts in Arabic. Thirdly, the excellent photographs, giving a more detailed view of pieces that you could not explore so closely in the actual displays – for instance, the gold filigree jewellery.

However, reading the book from cover to cover proved less enjoyable than I had hoped. As emphasised in the Clunas lecture, this was a show about history, not a show about art or artists, and the catalogue adheres firmly to this approach. For me at least, this made the reading mostly rather dry, with unexpected highlights such as the section on hunting, an activity that was crucial to the ruler’s identity and that was part of a common Eurasian court culture that the Ming shared with Timurid, Ottoman and Mughal rulers.

Sometimes material is repeated in more than one chapter, which is fine for important topics like Zhu Di taking power as the Yongle emperor, but faintly irritating for less important topics such as the gifting of giraffes and elephants. The structuring of the material feels choppy too, mainly because your reading of each essay is interrupted by clusters of catalogue entries, which are incorporated in the body of the essay, not left until after.

I don’t regret my purchase and there are some fabulous images, but this is one you do have to work at.

Ming: 50 years that changed China
Edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, 2014.
The British Museum Press, 312 pages, £25 (or £40 in hardcover).

Books: Shanghai Art of the City

pic cover shanghai

This lavish hardback gives a fascinating account of Shanghai’s visual culture in the 20th century, starting with the China Trade paintings of the 1850s (topographical works that showed the premises of important companies) and finishing with video material from the early 2000s. Published to accompany the 2010 exhibition “Shanghai” at the Asian Art Museum, it still works very well as a stand-alone guide.

This was of course a hugely turbulent phase in Shanghai’s history. The Japanese occupied the city during the Sino-Japanese war, first the Chinese sector in 1937, then the foreign concessions in 1941. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, Shanghai artists were not initially too much affected. However, this changed as the authorities relocated art academies away from Shanghai in the early 1950s, and later instigated the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), with devastating effects on artists and artistic practice.

The book presents material from every decade and in a variety of media: traditional ink painting, Western-inspired painting by artists such as Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) and Xu Beihong (1895-1953), propaganda posters, woodcuts and more.

I especially enjoyed the selections from the 1930s, including photographs of 1930s buildings, Shanghai Deco furniture, wool rugs, magazine covers and posters of 1930s beauties. I was also curious to read up on contemporary artists featured in the Saatchi Gallery’s recent “Post Pop” show, such as Zhou Tiehai (b. 1966) and Liu Dahong (b. 1962).

I felt that the essays varied somewhat in quality, and that there was repetition of the historical material – perhaps unavoidable with art that is politically charged. But this volume is bursting with pictures and definitely recommended.

Shanghai Art of the City
Michael Knight & Dany Chan, 2010.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 284 pp.

This book was received as a gift from family!

Books: Ming The Golden Empire

pic ming golden empire

I do enjoy reading the catalogues for exhibitions that I can’t attend in person, as in my last book review, and this was no exception – a National Museums Scotland catalogue, for an exhibition of Ming art held in Edinburgh over the summer of 2014, opening a few months ahead of the Ming exhibition at the British Museum.

The exhibition was based primarily on loans from Nanjing Museum, with additional objects from National Museums Scotland. Ceramics and painting feature very prominently, but the scope is wide, including bronze, jade, furniture, lacquer, maps, textiles, and even the examination scripts of those seeking to join the ranks of officialdom.

Particular items speak to the cultural output of Nanjing itself – for instance, high-quality textiles such as silk brocade from the Nanjing workshops, or earthenware bricks from the Nanjing City Wall, each stamped with the name of the worker who made it, and his supervisors, in case it turned out substandard.

I liked the clean design of this catalogue and the excellent illustrations – though it was disappointing that a small minority of entries carried no image. Best of all, I found the text lucid and very readable, not just the text-box explanations of key themes (silk, Daoism etc) but also the informative essays fronting each chapter. This was accessible in the best possible way, an enjoyable read for those new and not so new to the field.

Ming: The Golden Empire
Kevin McLoughlin, ed., 2014.
National Museums Scotland, 144pp, £20.