This corrected and amplified translation of Von Seidlitz’s standard work on Japanese prints’ has the peculiar merit of endeavoring to make an aesthetic appraisal of the material. This needed badly to be done. Such English experts as Anderson and Strange have, on the whole, approached the subject in an antiquarian spirit, while Edmond de Goncourt and Bing merely confirmed the exaggerated vogue of Hokusai and Utamaro among the pioneer collectors. The late E. F. Fenollosa, in his remarkable catalogue, The Masters of Ukiyo-ye, 1896, was the first Western scholar to work through the entire field from the point of view both of history and pure criticism. His work, since it was merely a catalogue for a loan exhibition, has never had its due recognition, and Von Seidlitz deserves credit for accepting so candidly the judgments of his American predecessor. The emphasis of the present work, then, is precisely where Fenollosa laid it, on Kiyonaga and his eighteenth-century precursors. Here is Fenollosa’s rating, which our author apparently accepts: Of first rank as artists are the precursor Matahei, Okumura Masonobu, Harunobu, Kiyonaga, and Hokusai. Such favorites as Koriusai, Utamaro, and Shuncho are relegated to second place, while to the heroes of many of us, Toyokuni of the actors and Hiroshige of the landscapes, is grudgingly awarded third rank. The early nineteenth-century prints that are the staple of the market, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, etc., Fenollosa left in the limbo of the fourth class. This book, then, reaffirms a quite definite scale of values which the enthusiast may do well to consider. It indicates that, with the exception of Europe’s first Japanese love, Hokusai, the tendency has been to collect the prints of minor importance. To possess Utamaro, Toyokuni, and Hokusai, with Hiroshige as a second choice, is still the ambition of the average amateur.
Now, it is no wonder that the pioneers, the Goncourts, Duret, Gonse, Whistler, Alfred Stevens, and our own John La Farge and Russell Sturgis should have been enraptured by the first prints that came over. These earliest importations included the giant Hokusai, but, for that matter, what Fenollosa scornfully calls a fourth-rate print was an infinitely refreshing apparition in the heyday of Victorian and Third Empire art. If the pioneers had not loved the languid Utamaro too much, should we now be devotees of Kiyonaga ? Will our successors in turn have passed altogether beyond eighteenth-century Japan?
A Japanese amateur would be in no doubt as to the answer. For him the cult of an art which he regards as vulgar both in its spirit and processes is a deplorable aberration. We face the disquieting paradox that an art which no native adept takes quite seriously has captured the finest connoisseurs of the Western world. Who is right ? Or is there some misunderstanding that puts both East and West partly in the wrong ? Is there perhaps a common ground on which the shades of John La Farge and Okakura Kakuzo might meet ? These questions are all important, but have never been fairly met. Here they naturally can-not be elucidated, yet the hint of a compromise may be given. To do this we must understand the position of the Japanese connoisseur. He scorns the color-prints, first because they represent for him a decadent school. Ukiyo-ye (the fleeting world) is for him an unworthy subject.
He condemns the practitioners of the style, both for their vulgarity and frivolity. They stand apart from that idealism which is the soul of Japan. Hear Mr. Okakura:
The Popular School, though it attained skill in color and drawing, lacks that ideality which is the basis of Japanese art. Those charmingly colored woodcuts, full of vigor and versatility, made by Utamaro, Shunman, Kiyonobu, Harunobu, Kiyonaga, Toyokuni, and Hokusai, stand apart from the main line of development of Japanese art, whose evolution has been continuous ever since the Nara period. . . . Great art is that before which we long to die. But the art of the late Tokugawa period only allowed a man to dwell in the delights of fancy. It is be-cause the prettiness of the works of this period first came to notice, instead of the grandeur of the masterpieces hid-den in the daimios’ collections and the temple treasures, that Japanese art is not yet seriously considered in the West.
Here we have to do with a condemnation both aesthetic and patriotic. The absolute superiority of the traditional schools of painting is asserted, and Ukiyo-ye is regarded as a defection from sound national ideals. In the same spirit purists have ruled out the “gallant school” of eighteenth-century France as essentially frivolous or vulgar. And the ecole galante has so many affinities with Ukiyo-ye that we may say that to condemn Kiyonaga one must logically scorn Watteau, while Utamaro and Fragonard must stand or fall together, both being consummate interpreters of those women whose forte is a refined sensual charm. Here we reach an ineluctable issue of principle. Is it possible honestly to like the severe portraiture of Philippe de Champaigne and the coquettish designs of Eisen, the noble abstract landscape of Sesshu, and the more literal transcripts of Hiroshige ? Impressionist critics have denied that the same heart can honestly harbor these discrepant pleasures, and, clearly, the Japanese heart cannot. In the West, how-ever, taste requires no such exclusive and doctrinal devotion. The sincerity of Theophile Gautier will hardly be impugned, and he knelt impartially at the shrines of Ingres and Delacroix. More significantly, Fenollosa, of all students of the ancient traditional painting of Japan the most learned and sympathetic, was also a most discriminating admirer of the masters of Ukiyo-ye. We might add that connoisseurs who, like C. L. Freer, have sought out the finest scrolls of the earlier centuries have remained unabated enthusiasts for the eighteenth-century masters. In short, the finest Western taste is flexible enough to admit the superior glories of traditional painting in Japan and still to love both the exquisite craftsmanship and the infinite human variety of the smaller art of the popular school. We evidently face one of those ultimate antitheses of race which may hardly be adjusted. Let the Oriental beware lest logical severity deprive him of some excellent pleasure, and the Occidental lest in the easy fringe of his standards more undesirable visitants than Utamaro and Fragonard find a lodging.
Admitting once for all the technical and spiritual superiority of older Japanese painting, the color-prints, both on the side of craftsmanship and subject, make an irresistible appeal to the catholic collector. As superb facsimiles after great designers, these sheets far outrank, in merely technical interest, the woodcuts after Darer and Holbein. The cotton paper, once impregnated with pigment, gains a peculiar loveliness of texture, a chastened brilliancy quite its own. The impressions which are made without a press, by careful padding, yield an extraordinary variety of velvety black lines, cunningly varied flat tints, and even embossing of a most restrained elegance, serving merely as accent. The linear pattern is conducted scrupulously in calligraphic swirls, which yet give the character of the subject; every trick of repetition, opposition, and counterpoise is practised, and the effect remains delightfully simple and clear. Upon this carefully arranged and ever-rhythmical foundation of continuous black lines is superimposed a bolder system of color masses. Nobody has understood the art of balanced spots as the painters and printers of Japan. Harmony is secured first by an instinctive equilibration of these flat masses of color, and, again, though the procedure is never allowed to annul the broad contrasts of color, by introducing a little of the neighboring hues in each mass. These humble workmen employ more flexibly that instinctive, almost mathematical, color-sense which we note in the rug-weavers of the Nearer East, a faculty which has been vouchsafed but sparingly to Europe since Gothic times.
How subtly intellectual the composition of these unpretentious subjects is may be judged from the fact that the single sheets which have delighted European amateurs often turn out to be merely detached members of compositions of two, three, or more sheets. The arrangement is so planned as to be perfect, whether in the single prints or the ensemble. As regards the mind, the isolated sheet may be incomplete; as regards the eye it is unitary. Evidently, the successful articulation of compositions complete in themselves requires fore-thought and shrewd calculation. Formulas may help somewhat, but in technical resources the artists of the popular school are not inferior to the great masters of the earlier centuries. Even the purists, like Mr. Okakura, admit this, and merely deplore the inferior inspiration of the realists. As masters of composition, these popular artists are perhaps most engaging in those tall strips called kakemonos. Within these strait limits they will set a figure and accessories, sometimes several figures, horses, boats, always without crowding and always with regard to the vertical scheme. Here they achieve not merely remarkable feats in perspective, but do wonders in making figures fully expressive and satisfactory though cut into by the frame. One does not need to go to the master in this kind, Koriusai, nor yet to the rare kakemonos of Harunobu and Kiyonaga; the later men will supply admirable examples. There is, for example, a Yeizan print of a Samurai with his bride, half-length figures, each with a hawk on wrist, in which the pattern undulates through curved wing and back of the falcons and tilted heads of the hunters, being held true to the vertical by spacious masses of blue. Such variety within a formal scheme is characteristic of all genial design, and especially of that of Japan.
For such reasons any lover of beautiful design, not bound by an exclusive aesthetic, will perforce admire and, as he may, possess Japanese color-prints. It is true that the enthusiasm for them is still somewhat indiscriminating. Secondary artists are exalted, and mediocre prints are sold at absurd prices, but the amateur who is lucky enough to acquire Kiyonaga, Harunobu, or Masonobu, and is clever enough to discern good Hokusai from poor, to cull out the really desirable sheets of Utamaro, Kuniyoshi, and Hiroshige-such an amateur will not have either aesthetic or financial cause to regret his foible for the school of the fleeting world.
Since monetary value depends largely on condition, and the slightest defect in register or inequality in printing rules a print out, it is regrettable that Von Seidlitz has not laid greater stress on this matter. Happily, the cult of condition plays into the hands of the impecunious collector. He buys for a dollar or two the prints which in immaculate state are held in the hundreds. Only let him not persuade himself or his wife that, fiscally speaking, he is getting bargains. Artistically, there is much to be said for the poor print. Its defects are often microscopic, while frequently it has acquired through age and wear an adventitious beauty all its own. The present writer knows of a smoked and browned Koriusai which, though the learned deny it, is aesthetically a “unique example.” In the gift and anniversary sheets, surimono, the dexterity of the color-printers appears at its height. They love to powder the paper with sparkling foil or mica. Of these charming confections our author is somewhat scornful, considering them overelaborate in polychromy and em-bossing. Surimono are, as a matter of fact, so hard to come by that nobody really needs to be warned against them; moreover, with some tendency to fussiness, they contain some of the masterpieces of Ukiyo-ye. A most delicate ingenuity is employed in hinting at favorite occupations or depicting favorite instruments of the person complimented.
From the early seventeenth century, when the painter Matahei founded the popular school, through the years when black or hand-colored prints were the rule, to the beginnings, with three pigments, of true color-printing, and Harunobu’s invention of the five-color blocks, in 1765, Von Seidlitz conducts the reader cautiously and with tact. Due stress is laid upon the close relation of book illustration to the derivative art. The ultimate complication of the color schemes in the artists of the early nineteenth century is condemned as sterile virtuosity. The most famous works are listed, and many signatures are reproduced. This book, in short, while in no sense a complete catalogue, is an agreeable introduction to the subject, and a useful manual for the collector. If he adjusts his standards by it he will not go far wrong; for more detailed information a friendly Japanese adviser is better than many books. Fenollosa’s catalogue is inaccessible and heavy reading. To study it in a print collection would be a liberal education in this branch. Next to this course would be to buy and read this excellent book which has embodied so much of Fenollosa’s teaching.
As for the fleeting world of eighteenth-century Japan, a visit to it involves some hazard of bad company. It is a chance, however, that an adventurous spirit will take cheerfully. The courtesan, parading, dressing, bathing, reading romances, bulks pretty large in this world. But her appeal is so demure and hieratic that only a very uneasy conscience could resent her presence. She fits naturally and quite modestly into a human scheme that includes chivalric heroes, samurai hunting or in other rural disport, workmen at their trades, hardy fishermen and peddlers with their sump-ter beasts, actors in rigid yet expressive poses, prosperous folk on water-parties, children at play, toilers in the rice swamps-of this mot-ley world she is in a manner the queen, but she rather partakes of its decorous gayety than communicates her own corruption. Utamaro in his later work has given her a portentous and graceful melancholy. Her features are elongated and rounded with a paradoxical resemblance to a saint of Simone Memmi. And this pathetic conception of the woman of pleasure, corresponding to the end of the great century, means that the glory of Ukiyo-ye has passed into decadence. There will still be place for the robust illustration of Hokusai; Hiroshige, and occasionally Kuniyoshi, will yet give us visions of that solemn Japan of forest and mountain that overlooks eternally the fleeting world of city and coast, but the vein that has produced for nearly two centuries is exhausted. The fleeting world will lack its artist chroniclers; Fuji will aspire in the distance and will be stencilled on a million pots for the delectation of the careless foreigner, but no Hokusai will inwreathe that sacred cone with expressive arabesques every element of which is an idiomatic trait of Japanese life. Ukiyo-ye is dead, as dead as the fetes of Watteau and frolics of Fragonard, but it keeps a kind of life in those who love the human show and value the exquisite gesture with which a disciplined hand obeys the orders of a seeing eye. And as for the issue of frivolity, a fleeting world in the flesh or on paper must contain much to offend a moralist, but a fleeting world that wants to be exquisitely depicted is for the artist at least a most serious and con-soling reality, and by the time the overt frivolity of his subject-matter has filtered through his imagination the residuum should be limpid enough for a stoic. Real vision and imagination are always antiseptic. Surely we must count Watteau a serious artist-and Kiyonaga.