Zen Art

Zen Reflections in England

In England, I visited the Tate Gallery to see the works of J.W.M. Turner (1773–1851), Britain’s most celebrated painter.  Turner is considered a romantic artist, and most of his paintings, almost all landscapes, are full-blown productions often featuring shipwrecks, fires, natural disasters, wars, and epic historical events. Again, not my taste, but Turner’s paintings near the end of his life become extraordinarily simple and bright.  They lacked detail—indeed solid objects are barely suggested—and were suffused with light. To Turner, light was an emanation of God’s brilliance, and indeed his last words were, “The sun is God.” This is exactly what Shingon Buddhists believe—all of nature is a manifestation of Dainichi Nyorai, “Great Buddha of the Sun.” My favorite Turner painting was “Sun setting over a lake,” a Zen painting in color.

J.W.M. Turner “Sun setting over a Lake.” c. 1840, Tate Collection

Also in the Tate was the famous erotic sculpture “Ecstasy” by Eric Gill (1882–1940). Coincidentally, there was also a small exhibition of Gill’s work at the British Museum. Gill was a calligrapher, typographer, sculptor, mason, stonecutter, engraver, and printmaker. All of his work in any of the media he employed was characterized by stark and simple lines, and can be construed as Zen art even though Gill had no knowledge of Zen—he was in fact, a staunch and vocal Catholic convert. However, he was a good friend of the Ceylonese philosopher and art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, so Gill did know about Indian Hindu and Buddhist Art. Despite his Catholic pretentions, Gill equated art with sex—he had sex with anything that moved: his wife, his male and female friends, his sisters, his daughters, even his dog. (Many of these encounters were meticulously recorded in his diaries.) When Gill’s peculiar behavior was made public, there was an uproar, especially since many of his commissions are prominently featured on a number of churches and public buildings. There was a clamor to remove all of his sculpture on those edifices, but that was neither practical nor necessary. Gill was far from the first great artist who had a strange and controversial sex life—Picasso, pretty randy himself, said, “All art is erotic.”  If all the work created by great artists with supposedly strange sex lives were removed from public, there would hardly be anything left to look at (or listen to.)  Eric Gill was Britain’s Ikkyu.

Eric Gill, "God blessing Adam & Ave in having sex," illustration from the book Art is Love, 1927.


The exhibition catalog is Eric Gill. Ruth Cribb & Joe Cribb, London: The British Museum Press, 2011. For a study of Gill’s erotic art see Eric Gill: Nuptials of God, Anthony Hoyland, Medstone, Kent, U.K., 2010.