japonisme: 10/5/08 - 10/12/08

11 October 2008

a choice dish

perhaps they were sitting over an oval table, having a whiskey, discussing the publishing plans they had for the next year.... whom they would sign on this springtime excursion to the continent. fortunately their work was not really in competition so they were able to be friends. the fourteen years difference in age between them dissolved.

Born in England in the 1850s, the Arts and Crafts Movement was rooted in a call for social and economic reform. The rallying cry -- to escape the material excesses of the late-Victorian age and foster a new respect for handcraftsmanship and the beauty of the natural world -- was welcomed wholeheartedly in the United States. By the close of the century, when the Arts and Crafts Movement's full impact was felt in America, large numbers of simple yet artistic household items were being produced by companies from coast to coast. There was quarter-sawn oak furniture, hammered-copper metalware, textiles, vases -- and, of course, tiles. *

William Morris's stature as both a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement and the socialist camp made him an appealing figure to forward-thinking Americans of various stripes. In addition, Morris's experiments in self-publishing encouraged the creation of small presses in America which published books, pamphlets, and magazines to spread the gospel of liberated work.

Enthusiasts like Gustav Stickley, Leonard Abbott, Herbert S. Stone, and Elbert Hubbard printed and/or edited numerous publications, many of them hand-sewn and embellished, which quoted and invoked Morris for enterprises that tended to wander further and further from Morris's original beliefs. Their discourse was largely dependent on small magazines which combined literary offerings and crafts features with coverage of radical issues and quasi-radical "freethinking."

In the pages of such magazines can be traced a contentious group that might be called, oxymoronically, a polemical community. Yet social occasions, joint subscriptions or "clubbing," shared adver- tisements, and the migration of editors and writers from one publication to another helped bind them as a community, even while their disputes over dogma grew. 2

one of these new-publishers, as noted by morris, was herbert stuart stone. in 1894, with his friend hannibal ingalls kimball, both having just graduated from harvard, decided to put out what amounts to a promo piece: it was called the chap-book.

though they ostensibly only wanted to pave themselves a way into the publishing world, their taste combined with the moment in time made their little magazine beautiful, rich in literature, and quite influential. with authors such as henry james, poets like stephane mallarme, and artists like aubrey beard- sly, the magazine quickly became part of that new international community that was creating that 'new art.'

enter ernest batchelder and the many others recently inflamed by the passion of new ways to work, new ways to see. the american home, like those in europe, was being remade, and as the chap-book failed due to total ignorance about business practices, stone had an idea for another magazine, one for which he knew there was a burgeouning audience.

in 1896, in chicago, the house beautiful was born. dismissing the typical victorian house as a 'hideous aggregation' of 'dismal dreariness' and 'tawdry finery,' the magazine discovered a more enduring beauty in simplicity.** across a few states, over in new york, another magazine with a similar philosophy was beginning, but rather than it being the successful business stone now hoped for, this one was part of a religion.

where the house beautiful was slick, the fra, the roycrofters' publication under elbert hubbard, looked hand-done. where the house beautiful might talk a lot about the carpeting, the fra might talk about the soul. still the two both wrote of the home, both shared the soul of a movement. or did until that night, as they sat at that table discussing the craftsmen in europe they'd hoped to meet, and as their ship was torpedoed by the german soldiers. hubbard and stone both went down with the ship.

* Country Living, September 1, 2001, Bruce E. Johnson
** House Beautiful, November 1, 1996,
Christine Pittel

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08 October 2008

the principles of design

what you probably don't know is that a great many houses in my neighborhood, built as a working-class neighborhood in the early 20s, have a 'batchelder fireplace.' as i said, these were not built for rich folk, and they don't look like they were, but the variety and beauty of the decorative tiles on mantles around here make as least the hearths priceless.

this was all i knew or ever even thought of batchelder, ernest batchelder. until yesterday. i was browsing around as i am wont to do and i came across a design instruction book he wrote, where i found this page.

since he had been kind enough to give us a hint, i was quickly able to find the image to which he referred .

it didn't look anything like the style in his tiles, but it certainly did look like the nicholson (look in the background).

a little more poking around under the name of batchelder, coming across additional samples of his tiles, when i made a connection that made my jaw drop and a giggle come up my throat. as i further perused his book i came across this illustration which, since i had just been dealing with this stuff a couple of days earlier, looked very familiar.

i was amazed at the coin- cidence. at the same time, there was one other of the shunboku images that looked familiar.

i went poking through my back files and found the dow image i was looking for.

(i turned the japanese image sideways and flopped to make it even more obvious, but in any case i think it's clear.)

it turns out, i learn, that batchelder went to study art in boston when he was a young man. there he studied with denman waldo ross, who was a trustee at the MFA in boston dealing with the new and rapidly growing japanese art collection. at his side, though rather his competitor, but also a 'keeper of the japanese art' there at that time was arthur wesley dow. and there in their hands was the treasure from the 1730s: shunboku's book.

there are many sites which feature original or reproduction batchelder tiles; most of them can be found through the links page at the batchelder site. what began as a sort of 'sears catalogue' of fireplace tiles has, as interest in the design from this era grows, become a treasured commodity.

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06 October 2008

the dragon painter

from Mary McNeil Fenollosa in 1905. among the first americans in japan, fenollosa documented the closing of one age and the opening of the next. we have heard of her husband here, and now we hear her voice itself.


On such a midsummer dawn, not many years ago, old Kano Indara, sleeping in his darkened chamber, felt the summons of an approaching joy. Beauty tugged at his dreams. Smiling, as a child that is led by love, he rose, drew aside softly the shoji, then the amado of his room, and then, with face uplifted, stepped down into his garden. The beauty of the ebbing night caught at his sleeve, but the dawn held him back.

It was the moment just before the great Sun took place upon his throne. Kano still felt himself lord of the green space round about him. On their pretty bamboo trellises the potted morning-glory vines held out flowers as yet unopened. They were fragile, as if of tissue, and were beaded at the crinkled tips with dew.

Kano's eyelids, too, had dew of tears upon them. He crouched close to the flowers. Something in him, too, some new ecstacy was to unfurl. His lean body began to tremble. He seated himself at the edge of the narrow, railless veranda along which the growing plants were ranged. One trembling bud reached out as if it wished to touch him.

The old man shook with the beating of his own heart. He was an artist. Could he endure another revelation of joy? Yes, his soul, renewed ever as the gods themselves renew their youth, was to be given the inner vision. Now, to him, this was the first morning. Creation bore down upon him.

The flower, too, had begun to tremble. Kano turned directly to it. The filmy, azure angles at the tip were straining to part, held together by just one drop of light. Even as Kano stared the drop fell heavily, plashing on his hand. The flower, with a little sob, opened to him, and questioned him of life, of art, of immortality. The old man covered his face, weeping.

The last of his race was Kano Indara; the last of a mighty line of artists. Even in this material age his fame spread as the mists of his own land, and his name was known in barbarian countries far across the sea.

Tokyo might fall under the blight of progress, but Kano would hold to the traditions of his race. To live as a true artist, — to die as one, — this was his care. He might have claimed high position in the great Art Museum recently inaugurated by the new government, and housed in an abomination of pink stucco with Moorish towers at the four corners. He might even have been elected president of the new Academy, and have presided over the Italian sculptors and degenerate French painters imported to instruct and "civilize" modern Japan.

Stiff graphite pencils, making lines as hard and sharp as those in the faces of foreigners themselves, were to take the place of the soft charcoal flake whose stroke was of satin and young leaves.

Horrible brushes, fashioned of the hair of swine, pinched in by metal bands, and wielded with a hard tapering stick of varnished wood, were to be thrust into the hands of artists, — yes, — artists — men who, from childhood, had known the soft pliant Japanese brush almost as a spirit hand; — had felt the joy of the long stroke down fibrous paper where the very thickening and thinning of the line, the turn of the brush here, the easing of it there, made visual music, — men who had realized the brush as part not only of the body but of the soul, — such men, indeed, — such artists, were to be offered a bunch of hog bristles, set in foreign tin.

Why, even in the annals of Kano's own family more than one faithful brush had acquired a soul of its own, and after the master's death had gone on lamenting in his written name. But the foreigners' brushes, and their little tubes of ill-smelling gum colored with dead hues! Kano shuddered anew at the thought. 1

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