Far Eastern Painting – Japan

Japanese painting, unlike its Chinese models, is perplexingly various. It tends ever to break aristocratic bounds and become widely representative of the people, it invents recondite forms of decoration, and creates a whole school of evasion. Almost in our own day it has developed extraordinary realistic resources. Its story is a bewildering tangle of revolutions, eclecticisms, reactions. We have to do with a more fiery race, less given to contemplation-a civilization in which taste vacillated ardently after the fashion of modern Paris. Again, we find odd implications of art with politics. The upstart Ashikaga shoguns, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, take up the refinements of the Sung ink-tone manner, leaving the traditional polychromy to the old nobility. At many periods of Japanese art an excessive sensibility and cleverness prevail. Two centuries before Whistler, Karin represents a sumptuous and sophisticated simplicity in many fields of design. Utamaro anticipates by a hundred years the perverse languor of Aubrey Beardsley. The whole Fujiwara period, from the ninth through the twelfth century, seems to breathe the feverish, ambiguous charm of Provence of the troubadours. There is no extravagance of Western feeling that the Japanese have not sometime outdone. How pale our transcendentalists from Pythagoras to Emerson look beside those adepts of the Zen philosophy, who regarded words as an impediment to understanding and committed their doctrine to abrupt and ejaculatory fragments of phrases 1 The brittle stroke of the great painter Sesshu carries the Zenistic mood into the graphic arts. In short, while the Chinese artists in their most audacious eliminations and suggestions made the necessary compromises with Confucian common sense, the Japanese artists are absolutists and their art seems to chafe restlessly at its bounds. Even to an eye unaccustomed to Far Eastern art, the sobriety of most Chinese painting will be apparent, whereas only upon full acquaintance will much of the best Japanese painting lose an initial flavor of caricature. Such observations are not made to minimize Japanese art. Precisely its variousness and the extravagance of its beauty commend it to us. It escapes our formulas, and through acquaintance with it our formulas may profitably be enlarged. Only a few salient characteristics of this variegated production can be treated within the measure of an essay.

From the coming of the Buddhist missionaries in the middle of the sixth century, for a hundred and fifty years, Japan gave herself to the assimilation of the monumental religious art of China. It has already been noted that our actual knowledge of the severe splendors of T’ang painting rests merely upon its echoes in Japan. And this imported hieratic art soon begins to assume a native character. A softer and more fantastic beauty appears in the placid faces of the Kwannon and the saints, more sumptuous forms of coloring and gilding announce a keener decorative intention; with the growth of the minor Buddhistic pantheon and the adoption of native divinities by the new cult a complicated repertory of sacred subjects and personages is added to the simpler iconography inherited through China from India. A surging and somewhat tumultuous life, very unlike the gravity ever characteristic of China, is seeking _expression. Bushido, the knightly code, self-immolation for punctilio, the gossamer intricacies of Zenistic morals and philosophy, are still far in the future, but already the extravagance of new feeling is surging within the old hieratic bounds. Some flicker of the ancient stateliness of the T’ang mood will persist for centuries; its mere shell is still erect to-day, but the soul of the people is elsewhere. A vigorous collective life unfit for the isolated and inaccessible virtues of the hermitage is now to draw the artist from the temple to the highway.

That peculiar sensibility which is the distinction of Japanese character is in many respects the product of the Fujiwara period, from the middle of the ninth to the end of the twelfth century. Under a refined and pleasure-loving aristocracy the fibre of the people was relaxed as its emotional life was extended. These were centuries of amazing talk, of skilfully cultivated hyperaesthesia. Already in earlier periods the roots of this ultrarefinement are to be found. The Empress Koken thus dedicated the field flowers to Buddha in lines still famous:

If I pluck them, the touch of my hand will defile; therefore, standing in the meadows as they are, I offer these wind-blown flowers to the Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future.

We are already near the perilous brink of sentiment and sentimentality, and the Japan of Fujiwara will eagerly take the hazardous next step. Upon the fervors of this period it would be interesting to dwell. The excited throngs which followed eloquent priests recall similar scenes in Italy and France of the thirteenth century. But the Japanese adepts lack the savage energy of the European evokers of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Fujiwara mood is more closely allied to such organized languor as we find in the troubadours and the precieuses. The Land of Tenderness had been thoroughly charted in Japan some six hundred years before the geographical researches of Mlle. de Scudery. Again, there are aspects of Fujiwara which anticipate Tarascon. We read of panoplied captains who could not mount their chargers. In general, reality was being hard pressed by fair appearance. And this passing from the theological symbols to joy in appearance is what constitutes the new movement which was proudly called, in distinction from the imported styles, Yamoto, native Japanese.

The material of the Yamoto painters was men in collective action. Battles, pilgrimages, the bustle of civil and religious life are admirably treated in the few remaining scrolls of the Fujiwara period. And the endeavor of the artist is chiefly given to setting groups of men in their proper relation, in suggesting the joint action of the throng. Little attention is given to the individual. He becomes merely a term in an anecdote. In this respect Yamoto painting resembles closely the narrative Byzantine style with which it is exactly contemporary. The greatest exemplar of the narrative Byzantine tradition, Duccio of Siena, shows the same disregard for the form and physiognomy of individuals and the same tact in rendering the action and emotion of men in groups. In this social art Japan asserted her independence of China and renounced the severe individualism of the T’ang and early Sung styles. Yamoto painting overflowed its parent period, and during the artistic reforms associated with the Kamakura regime (the thirteenth century) and that of the Ashikaga shoguns (from the fourteenth century through the sixteenth), the native narrative style persisted alongside the revived hieratic style and the refinements borrowed from late Sung painting. The Yamoto scrolls divide into a more ornate and a simpler class. On the one hand, we find an ideal chiefly decorative associated with utmost sumptuousness of color and gilding; on the other, a pre-occupation with effective story-telling. Kano Sanraku, early in the seventeenth century, took up the ornate native style and re-established its honor. His admirable picture of the panic caused by the colliding wagons of the female admirers of the fair Prince Genji may be studied in Mr. Taki’s album. For elaborate and fantastic movement it may be compared with certain pictures of Old Brueghel. The leader of the new popular or Ukiyo-ye school, Matahei, a younger contemporary of Sanraku Kano, is also a notable decorator, but, on the whole, derives from the simpler illustrative branch of the Yamoto tradition, of which Hokusai may be regarded as the last great exemplar.

It seems to me the singular merit of Mr.Taki to have made clear the historic continuity between the revered Yamoto style and the too often contemned popular school. Very generally, the Japanese purists have condemned the Ukiyo-ye masters as triflers, or, worse, as traitors to the standards set by the priestly or Kano school. Such criticism emphasizes certain important facts. The popular school has had its defects of languor, of sentimentality, and of overemphasis. Its taste has wavered with its morals; it never has had the severe standards that have guided the Japanese revivers of the Sung style, nor yet the discretion that has characterized such uncompromising aesthetes as Sotatsu, Korin, and Hoitsu. But, while it is permissible to prefer these aristocratic manifestations of Japanese genius, it is obviously unfair to rule out an avowedly popular art for lack of aristocratic flavor. We do not hold it against Charles Keene that he failed to produce the “Tanagra” pastels of Whistler or the delightful mediaevalisms of Burne-Jones; and I think we should be foolish to measure the charming masters of the color-prints against the esoteric refinement of Korin or the tenuous sublimity of Sesshu. And, while these humbler illustrators of Japan obviously fall short in specific Far Eastern idealism, for that very reason they represent a very precious native quality-the capacity for finding beauty near at hand and in common things. They touch hands with generations of Japanese artisans who, through imitation, have achieved style–not the greatest style, but one infinitely adroit, winning, and preeminently Japanese.

The Kamakura shogunate witnessed a masculine reaction against Fujiwara sensibility, established the feudal ideal, and initiated the Samurai code of honor. Religion assumes a sterner cast. A tonic hero-worship pervades the islands. Portraiture begins to flourish alongside the old hieratic art, and the narrative style of Yamoto achieves new triumphs. A precious screen depicting the Heiji campaign, in the Boston Museum, shows the power of the military painters of this heroic age. Its triumphs, however, are in sculpture. Its painting chiefly infused a more manly spirit into existing forms. To the already ample iconography of Buddhism it adds hells of grotesque horror.

The sway of the Ashikaga shoguns corresponds significantly with the European Renaissance. It was a period when the Japanese mind deliberately aroused and fortified itself by reperusal of the. Exemplaria Grceca of India and China. The new shoguns emulated the contemporary Medicis and Gonzagas in hospitality to new thought and exotic forms of beauty. The painter-priest Soami revives the Sung manner in etherealized form, and invents the art of planning gardens symbolically. Soon the refined monotony of the tea ceremony is reduced to a code, tea-houses arise in calculated and expensive simplicity. Humble brown tea-jars become priceless for accidents of potting and firing appreciable only by the elect. The Samurai conceal their magnificent sword-blades, the work of famous smiths, in simple wooden scabbards with the bark on. Beauty is achieved through renunciation.

In the Zen philosophy the soul of the time finds truest _expression. Since the world is a flux, and nothing is permanent or valuable in itself, man must create within the vast illusion his own values and his personal sense of duration. Things are absolutely on a parity, equally important or equally negligible, as they are perceived. A philosopher must consent to the flux for the sake of great contemplative moments which may be snatched from the universal purposeless movement.

The smallest event will feed the thinking soul. Beauty must be sought where it lies obscurely. The obvious must be avoided. Amid illusion, the unlikeliest places may become our coign of vantage. Our part is to cultivate a precise gentleness and expectancy, never to force things or to pretend. The soul must borrow the honorable trenchancy, the veiled splendor of the sword. Excess is the most heinous vice. The Zen symbol for a wantonly foolish person was a monkey reaching down for the reflection of the moon in the water. If he succeeds, he shatters the beauty for which he stupidly yearned. Such is the penalty for grasping at illusion as if it were reality.

With the Zen priest Sesshu, whose activity covers the latter half of the fifteenth century, the theory of the flux produces works of art, the most durable and satisfactory that Japan can boast. Sesshu draws his inspiration from the India-ink painters of the early Sung dynasty. He made a triumphal progress through China, where his austere dexterity put to shame the trivial elegance of the contemporary Ming artists. Where Sesshu differs from his exemplars is in the impetuous economy of his stroke. He outdoes the Chinese at their own game of expressive syncopation. Few Western drawings are so instinct with the actual nervous tension of the artist. The landscapes and the rare figure subjects of Sesshu reveal a disciplined breathlessness. He has pushed emotion to the breaking-point without losing control. One likes to think that he was the contemporary of Rogier de la Pasture, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci.

There is in the Imperial Museum at Tokio a “Summer Landscape” by Sesshu which for generations served as a model for the Kano painters. In the foreground a few velvety dots and dashes indicate no definite form, but suggest keenly the sense of trees and shrubs pushing up from the water’s edge. We have the feeling of growth abstracted from individual growing things. Above, twin crags loom thinly through mist that veils their roots. At the top of the tall strip a square mass of calligraphic writing repeats the tone and, in a manner, the strokes of the foreground. Such a picture is essentially a hieroglyph. A trained eye will yield to its fascination and will read something of its meaning; an untrained eye will make nothing of it whatever. In other moods Sesshu is vivid to the point of explicitness. There is a landscape scroll in the collection of Prince Motoakira Mori, the geological precision of which rivals certain drawings of Durer. A basaltic causeway zigzags back into the picture at the right. Its tip is tufted with strong cedars profiled against the sky, and a spur of rock overhangs a pagoda set on the edge of the central ravine. The gulf itself is full of mist, but tree tops rise into the light, and an exquisite pine shrub, caught in a crag at the left, seems to beckon to its great fellows below. Overlapping ridges cut across the ravine in the far distance. The pagoda is sketched with a crispness that makes it akin to the cedars and the neighboring crag; the basalt causeway gives the sense of actual mass and weight, of being deeply rooted below the inhabited surface of the earth. In such a picture the cosmic quality of Chinese landscape assumes a more individual and intense _expression. No one who has seen this picture of Sesshu can forget it. Indeed, it will take its place with actual memories of nature. I shall be able to forget it only when I can forget how the buttresses of Staffa looked summers ago. All of the peculiar restrained energy of Japan is in the painting of Sesshu. It is he who best gives form to her tenuous yet potent idealism. Of the chivalry of the Ashikaga period he is the herald. His influence was potent through the century that closed with the thunder of Hideyoshi’s drums and the desperate emprise in Korea.

Sesson and the priestly school follow the example of Sesshu at a distance, or, rather, they modify his teaching by consulting his own early Chinese models. Sesson is in his degree a great painter; so are the two earlier Kanos, Masonobu and Montonobu. These men seek the energy of stroke of their great predecessor, but their quality is softer, their manner a little less spontaneous, and except for Sesson, who anticipates certain finesses of the aesthetic school of the seventeenth century, the Kanos tend to run out in a stereotyped pseudoclassicism. Near the end of the seventeenth century Kano Tanyu made superb imitations of Sesshu, but his resonant echo of Zen painting is exceptional. The heroic age of Japan was passing. The traditionalists of the Chinese manner are becoming a stale survival. An age of splendor and ease is to pervert the Zen teaching to Corinthian uses, and corresponding to this age a new and purely aesthetic school exempt from hieratic prescriptions and Chinese predominance.

With Sotatsu and Korin the new art of Japan is born-the art that, decadent, still holds the bazaars; the art which in its eighteenth-century exuberance captured the imagination of Whistler and the Goncourts. How far Sotatsu and Korin drew upon the ornate Yamoto style, lately revived by Sanraku, what hints they took from the hieratic polychromy, it would be difficult to say. In any case, their screens display a sumptuousness of gold and pigment new even in Japan. Nature was surely their chief teacher. Her lovely textures, in water, bark of trees, softness of flowers, gloss of gourd and fruit, glint of metal and stone, they studied with passionate fidelity. Following nature again, they threw over the consecrated linear formula inherited from China, and painted, as nature herself paints, in lineless masses of tint and tone. Yet the art remains primarily decorative. Nature is used merely as a repertory of motives; the combination in the actual work of art is highly abstract and conventional. Certain refinements of tone and arrangement reach their limits in Sotatsu, Karin, and their eighteenth-century follower, Hoitsu. A kind of canon of asymmetry is attained. Compared with these men, Whistler seems merely a gifted amateur and lacking in precision of means. As a by-product, these men cultivated also the peculiar snobbisms of the artistic temperament. Korin himself could paint only in full dress and seated upon a brocade cushion. “I must feel like a daimio while I create,” he remarked. No man has gone further in seeking remote forms of beauty, no one has better illustrated the solitary, superior, antisocial conception of the artist, and the exquisiteness of his work partakes of decadence, and his influence soon led to mere ingenuity and prettiness. In the eighteenth century the aesthetic movement is already over-ripe; in the nineteenth the tenth-rate attenuations of Korin’s manner will be hurried across the seven seas to satisfy the gimcrack seekers of the Western world. Like the rococo movement in Europe, we have a transient and most poignant grace, an assertion of the worth and the underlying sadness of pleasure, an ideal comprised in fine manners and chastened voluptuousness. But the rococo of France dies with Sedan, while that of Japan survives Port Arthur.

The real art of latter-day Japan, despite the purists, is not found in the various eclecticisms and revivals, but in the continued tradition of Ukiyo-ye. And now the popular school, which dominated the islands for the two hundred years preceding the death of Hokusai, 1849, has in turn yielded the day. There have been heroic and meritorious efforts to revive the Zen manner, but these attempts have not reached the national consciousness. For three centuries, Japanese sentiment has been social and realistic, and it seems as if these motives must guide any artistic revival of national scope. It is to be hoped that Japan may content herself with her own tradition and that of kindred China. Could there be a greater calamity than that the nation which has produced the most splendid hieratic painting, the idealism of Sesshu, the aestheticism of Korin, the apostolic succession of illustrators from the pioneers of the Yamoto style to Hokusai, that this nation should consent to be artistically a provincial appanage of Paris ? May that omen be averted, is the prayer of all catholic lovers of art.

In our rapid progress through the art of China and Japan, much has naturally been made of national differences. I may have given the impression that we are dealing with a very special sort of humanity beyond the reach of Western sympathy and understanding. Personally, I could wish that the Kiplingesque cant concerning East and West might be abated, so that one could examine real differences without seeming to imply an impassable gulf. There is, as a matter of fact, nothing in the art of China and Japan that a person really trained in European art cannot appreciate. I mean a patient, open-minded person whose eye has kept something of the adventurous quality. In studying painting in its most diverse manifestations, I am increasingly impressed with the kinship existing between the finest things of whatever nation or time. The other day I noted the wind-blown reeds in the foreground of Ruysdael’s “Mill” at Amsterdam, and was struck by a vague resemblance. The touch and the feeling, on reflection, were identical with that of certain reeds in a Kano painting on my own walls. Mr. Cortissoz in his delightful memoir of John La Farge tells how La Farge, as a fitting greeting for the Japanese critic Okakura Kakuzo, procured him the view of some fine Rembrandt etchings. To them the pilgrim knelt and said: “This is what the great Chinese black-andwhite masters tried to do.” And, indeed, the Far Eastern painters share Rembrandt’s scorn of the unfelt and uninterpreted appearance, his passionate devotion to light and shade as conveyers of emotion, his love of the single energetic stroke, his royal disregard of mere facts, his habit of painting with his soul.

In these essays on the painting of China and Japan, I have gladly taken the risks of an admiration as ignorant as it is profound. The facts I have perforce taken at second hand, and doubtless I shall have written much to make a judicious expert grieve. But there is nothing second-hand about the thrill these lovely works evoke. Any great _expression of the human spirit must come home to a sensitive intelligence. The way to art is through art, and the critic is merely an explorer seeking new kindred for us. Later comes the ethnologist and measures their heads, an important but a colder process. As a belated explorer, then, my humble part is to say that this land is delectable and that all who really love their early Sienese painters, Mantegna, Botticelli, Rembrandt, may enter fearlessly.