japonisme: japonisme & buddhism • part 3

07 March 2009

japonisme & buddhism • part 3

while we are still tracing fenollosa's footsteps, we must first put an 1870 book into his hands: across america and asia, by raphael pumpelly. he is turned to the one chapter written by john la farge, 'an essay on japanese art,' from which i shall quote liberally.

[Japanese prints] have always been admired, and collected, but like other rare things have had their best merits passed over, because they could be made the objects of a vulgar curiosity. Though they furnish a test, if ever there was one, for discernment in art, those who make it their business to instruct in such matters were silent. Original appreciation of excellence is never abundant; even so late as 1851, Mr. Owen Jones did not include Japanese decoration in his "Grammar of Ornament."

These things all please the eye, as if with the sense of touch. On analysis, besides the wondrous finish, we notice the novelty of the design, its energy, its accuracy, its sentiment, very often the grandeur of its style, very often a stamp of individuality or personal talent, its recalling of natural objects, the enchanting harmony of its colors, and its exquisite adaptation to the surface ornamented.

We feel that we are looking at perfect work, that we are in presence of a distinct civilization, where art is happily married to industry. These accompaniments of every-day life, studied out, reveal a complete school of art. While it is still pure, uninfluenced, and uninjured by new contacts, it will be well to inquire into its value, and to learn what lessons we can derive from it. Its limits seem at this day distinctly traced. What we shall know hereafter cannot contradict the points already made, even if it should very much displace them. Notwithstanding that every nation bears intellectual fruit neither natural nor tasteful to others, this is truer of literature than of plastic art, for this last speaks the more universal language; and without our aiming at a full analysis, the principal characteristics of this decorative art may be here described in some connected order.

Most evident in Japanese art, is the use of a marvellous decoration, the very crown of that power over color always an heirloom of the East, and a separate gift from ours. . To Eastern directness, fullness, and splendor, the Japanese add a sobriety, a simplicity, a love of subdued harmonies and imperceptible gradations, and what may be called an intellectual refinement akin to something in the Western mind. If we wish, their works can be for us a store-house as ample and as valuable in its way as the treasures of form left to us by the Greeks. For the Japanese, no combinations of colors have been improbable, and their solutions of such as are put aside by Western knowledge recall the very arrangements of Nature.

(I remember a print in which a silvered sickle of a moon shone through the most delicate gray fog clouds, as correctly edged as if by the photograph, and melting into the very texture of the paper. Over this were faint lines of falling rain, and an inscription perfectly distinct, but as pale as the faintest wash of India ink. If we admire this refinement, what are we to think of that which it addressee in Japan?)

Great beauty of color is apt to obscure the structure upon which it rests, and excellence of design is not seldom unrecognized in the works of great colorists. Little as this is felt in the harmonious synthesis of Japanese decoration, Japanese drawings and wood-cuts in black and white allow us to gauge their abstract power of design, and their knowledge of drawing. Stripped of those other beauties of color and texture so peculiar to their precious work, these drawings give us in the simplest way their control of composition, that power in art which affects the imagination by the mere adjustment of lines and masses. Herein their work can be compared to the best, in this — the most simple means of expression in art, for by this all its forms and periods are united, and the tattooing of the savage is connected with the designs of Michael Angelo.

In fact it is the nearest expression of the will of the artist, which is the very foundation of art. Japanese composition in ornamental design has developed a principle which separates it technically from all other schools of decoration. This will have been noticed by all who have seen Japanese ornamental work, and might be called a principle of irregularity, or apparent chance arrangement: a balancing of equal gravities, not of equal surfaces. A Western designer, in ornamenting a given surface, would look for some fixed points from which to start, and would mark the places where his mind had rested by exact and symmetrical divisions. These would be supposed by a Japanese, and his design would float over them, while they, though invisible, would be felt beneath. Thus a few ornaments — a bird, a flower — on one side of this page would be made by an almost intellectual influence to balance the large unadorned space remaining.

And so, by a principle familiar to painters, an appeal is made to the higher ideas of design, to the desire of concealing Art beneath a look of Nature. It has the advantage of allowing any division and extension, and super-imposition of other and contradictory designs. With another analogy to the higher forms of Art, the Japanese look to more symmetrical arrangement for their graver effects and religious symbolisms. To carry out this subtle conciliation of symmetry and chance, this constant reference to the order of nature requires of course an incessant watching of all its moods and all its details.

The daily record of such attention fills the sketch-books of all artists, and many of the little Japanese books of prints are nothing but facsimiles of such sketches. Whether they are careless or studied, an impression of Nature disengages itself from them all; every one who sees them will be more or less sensitive to a spirit of observation unfamiliar to our more hurried civilization. With the exception of a certain idealized stereotyping of the female face, they have a respect for reality only limited by understanding the necessities of art. Any excess is in the direction of essential laws, and accentuation is a note of Japanese art. If their modes shock our own conventionalities, we cannot gainsay that never before have artists so lived at home with animals and plants; never has artistic skill held under a more subtle sway the thoughtless tribes of sea and air.

To different origins we shall reasonably look for the causes which have kept the Japanese artist to flat tints and boundary lines in drawing, and have prevented his pursuing others of nature's appearances, and attempting to give the forms of things by the opposition of light and shade, or the influence of colored light. With the harmony which belongs to all good art, Japanese works, if they do not solve the latter problem, offer at least very successful sketches of such solutions. Their colored prints are most charmingly sensitive to the coloring that makes up the appearance of different times of day, to the relations of color which mark the different seasons, so that their landscape efforts give us, in reality, the place where — the illuminated air of the scene of action; and what is that but what we call tone?

Like all true colorists, they are curious of local color, and of the values of light and shade ; refining upon this they use the local colors to enhance the sensation of the time, and the very colors of the costumes belong to the hour or the season of the landscape. Eyes studious of the combinations and oppositions of color, which must form the basis of all such representations, will enjoy these exquisite studies, of whose directness and delicacy nothing too much can be said in praise.

Inquiry into Japanese art would give material for appreciation of the social state of the artist-workman in mediaeval times and in a military race, or again in Pagan antiquity, and for a study of the advantages and disadvantages connected with a fixed social condition : to which comparison the analogies and differences with their Chinese brethren will add help. But it must now be sufficient to have helped, in any way, to call attention to this art, which helps to bridge the gulf between us and the Eastern gardens. It can be the source of useful influences from a living school, equal to any in the study of nature and the use of decoration; and it offers, to all those willing to put themselves in the proper mood, a new and fresh fountain of imaginative enjoyment. *

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Blogger lotusgreen said...

la farge said, "With the Japanese the Badger is uncanny. He misleads and deceives by many tricks and takes wayfarers out of the way. Thus he calls at a distance by beating a tattoo on his swollen abdomen. The noise, as I have heard it, is not unlike the muffled roar of the waterfall nearby."

07 March, 2009 16:31  
Blogger Princess Haiku said...

Hi Lotusgreen,
Stopped by to see what you were up to. The weather has gotten fabulous hasn't it? Hope you are enjoying the beginnings of Spring

07 March, 2009 23:29  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

was out gardening yesterday! hope your mums are thriving!

08 March, 2009 11:16  
Blogger Gina Collia-Suzuki said...

Hey there, someone was kind enough to give me my first blog award today, and I have to pass it on to ten people who I think have inspiring blogs... so, for having such a visually stimulating blog, I'm passing it on to you:


09 March, 2009 17:33  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh thank you gina! i am quite honored by this!

09 March, 2009 17:54  
Blogger Dominic Bugatto said...

Great series of posts , that top piece is just 'magical. .

18 March, 2009 11:04  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thank you dom--i thought maybe i'd driven everyone away. yeah--that top one... it totally captures the artist, i think. i wish there were more like that.

18 March, 2009 12:05  
Blogger Princess Haiku said...

The light in these prints is pristine; a flower all in itself.

21 March, 2009 22:58  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

what an interesting comment, princess--you must be seeing through the painter's eyes

22 March, 2009 14:41  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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