japonisme & buddhism • part 3
[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.
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.
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.
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. *