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Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

Last year’s Saint Patrick’s Day post regarding leprechauns explored the folklore behind these whimsical tricksters and then delved (somewhat playfully) into the commercially appealing leprechaun mascots adopted by cereals and sports teams.  But leprechauns have a darker side as well.  The original leprechauns from old Irish myth were less like comic gnomes playing tricks and more like anguished demons trying to injure humankind by appealing to our base instincts.

Knowth Passage Grave, c.2500 BC, Boyne Valley, Co. Meath

Leprechauns were minor folk among the aes sídhe—quasi-divine beings from a parallel world, who sometimes came into the mortal realm from across the oceans or from an underworld deep beneath the ancient burial mounds dotting Ireland.  The aes sídhe were colloquially known as the “fair folk” not because they were always just or always beautiful, but as flattery to prevent their terrible anger. Many of the stories of the fair folk’s interactions with humankind are haunting stories of madness and tragedy: maidens seduced away from earthly pursuits who fast to death; heroes dragged into bogs and drowned; lonely people who think they see a dead loved one and walk into the ocean desperate for one last embrace…that sort of thing.

Leprechauns, the lower class of the Celtic fairy world, were not so subtle and refined in their attempts to cozen humankind.  Even in the popular imagination the little people are associated with thirst for liquor, greed for gold, and naked lechery. I wondered if I could find a gallery of leprechauns as accursed evil tricksters and it was not hard.  However, to my surprise, most of these dark leprechauns were not painted on canvas–instead they were carved into human flesh with the sickly greens and blacks of nightmares.  Do you doubt me gentle reader?  Then behold, as a run-up to Saint Patrick’s Day, here is an alarming gallery of evil leprechaun tattoos!

Art by Brian Gallagher

Of course a lot of these tattoos are meant for the basic reason most tattoos exist–to make the wearer seem like a badass–and a lot of them do just that.  It also seems like some of them are the sort applied with a pen and markers which wash off after all the green beer has been quaffed. A few of them however, struck me as surprisingly true to the old stories.  These green sprites have not come from the spirit world to haunt us: instead they emerge from our own desires.  Written on our heart, they peek out from inside our skins, beguiling us with thirst that can never be quenched and greed that can never be sated.

Or maybe I am thinking about it too hard and they are just comical little green men beckoning us to enjoy life while we can.  Perhaps a beer would settle my mind…. Slàinte, readers—may you grasp the world’s pot of gold without it turning to caustic dust.  May you drink the joys of life and not have them drink you.

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