Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/August 1873/Orientals at Vienna


THE anticipations with regard to the appearance made by Orientals at Vienna will be realized to the full, and doubtless the contact between the East and West will prove of mutual advantage. In fact, the peculiarly happy situation of the Austrian capital has not only given this Exhibition its distinctive character, but has developed its proportions in a degree that has falsified all the original calculations. It soon became evident that circumstances would take it out of the category of those which had preceded it; that it might open new markets which were practically limitless, and that it would throw new and valuable lights upon hackneyed and familiar subjects. It was seen that it would reproduce, on an immeasurably greater scale, such cosmopolitan gatherings of traders as assembled at the great fairs of Leipsic or Nijni-Novgorod; that it would drag into open day the rarer contents of Oriental bazaars, and expose them side by side with the goods produced in Western manufactories and sold by Western shopkeepers. There would be unrivalled opportunities of making comparisons and drawing conclusions, of learning practical lessons and exploding antiquated prejudices. So it seems likely to prove; nor will either half of the world have much reason to triumph over the other. We need not advertise the wonders of our Western civilization. If we are not much in the way of boasting of them as against the benighted East, it is simply because we enjoy the serene self-complacency of indisputable superiority. To a certain extent we are justified by the results of a rapidly accelerating progress, which shows itself in the swift growth of our material prosperity. We work at the highest pressure; we invoke science to our assistance, and foster a restless rivalry that drives invention forward at express speed; we multiply labor by the introduction of mechanical improvements; and we supply our homes with luxuries that have become necessaries at extraordinarily economical rates. In short, we produce quickly and cheaply, and in all that relates to action we leave the dreamy East immeasurably behind, as the Easterns are ready enough to acknowledge, and, for the most part, rather with commiseration than envy. But, on the other hand, in much that is highest and most perfect in art we are the scholars and they the teachers. Our best-informed and most experienced technical and practical men are the most ready to acknowledge this. It is not wealthy connoisseurs and capricious dilettanti who lounge about the courts of Japan, China, and Turkey, cheapening the strangely attractive wares which are exposed by the merchants from those distant countries. It is the European manufacturers and tradesmen—especially the English—who rush into the Eastern departments, eagerly bidding against each other for every thing that strikes their fancy. This is one of the most characteristic features of the Vienna Exhibition. On no previous occasion of the kind has there been such wholesale buying and selling in the very earliest days, and the traffic goes forward most briskly in the Oriental quarters. As yet, Japan has not cleared her goods at the custom-house; China has scarcely imported the better part of hers. Those countries cannot as yet pretend to set a price upon their wares, while the prices fixed by the Persians seem high enough in all conscience, and the Ottomans are following suit after the time-honored fashion of Eastern dealers. Yet already the choicest of the Persian prayer-carpets are snatched up at the high prices set upon them; the best of the Japanese porcelain, bronzes, cloisonnée ware, and silks, have been sold several times over, the charges being left to the conscience of the commissioners, and the cards of the fortunate purchaser lying on the fragments of the torn tickets that had been affixed by rejected bidders; while even in Turkey and Tunis, which come far behind Japan and Persia in taste and quality of workmanship, many of the goods have changed owners already, the Prince of Wales being among the earliest and most considerable buyers.

The truth is, the more closely we look into the special productions of the East, the more we recognize its incontestable superiority in design and color, and in perfection of form and finish. The Orientals have plenty of time, no doubt, and do not grudge it; they can afford to work leisurely and carefully where we must economize labor by the rapidity of our processes and the multiplying power of our machinery. But then they have taste as well, and a taste which is older than schools of art, and seems nearly independent of technical education. Compare the graceful turbans and draperies of the Oriental with the stiff "chimney-pot," cutaway, and trousers of the Frank. The latter, although open to criticism even as convenient wear, doubtless look more like business. They give the idea of stripping easily for a hard day's work, and suggest readiness to answer the calls of any emergency. They are turned out comparatively cheaply to cut-and-dry patterns. The former are the signs of a languid yet not unfruitful existence. But they express the intuitive gracefulness of ideas evolved in a calm fulness of thought that will not be hurried; they show an originality and versatility of fancy whose inspirations may have been sought in the dreamy fumes of opium. Go to the remotest East of Asia, seek the Oriental on his own proper ground, and you seldom take him at a disadvantage. In his own unpretending way, the peasant who weaves mats of bamboo or moulds vessels of common clay in his retired village is as much of an artist as the skilled workman of Yeddo who lacquers cabinets in the most delicate plaques of veneer, or chases the bronze incense-burners that are to swing in the temples. When the Oriental breaks down is when he takes to imitating the European, as he has begun to do in these latter days. The Japanese sometimes turn from their own beautiful specimens of Kago and Satsuma porcelain to reproduce the fashions and colors of Parisian and English crockery, while the Turks back their clumsy machinery against the looms of Mancester in calicoes and cottons. Happily these follies of imitation are as yet rare; and probably the profits of this novel trade will not encourage the enterprising imitators to persevere. The East has much to learn from the West, and the lessons that will prove of most service to it go to the very groundwork of its society. It has yet to be enlightened as to the advantages of civil and religious liberty and education, the value of time, and the necessity of system and method. All this it is now learning, and in some matters of detail its education is going on only too rapidly. Doubtless sooner or later it will come to our markets for machinery which will enable it to make at home what it imports at present from abroad. But some of its tentative advances in this direction are premature and injudicious, to say the least, and, judging by certain samples of its imitative skill, it seems inclined to precipitate a competition whose unfortunate results in price and quality may cause it permanent discouragement.

However, it is not our purpose now to discuss the points on which we may teach the Orientals, but rather to glance at some of those where we are the scholars. There is a great deal in the Eastern departments of the Vienna Exhibition which is chiefly interesting as showing their relative backwardness. Some of them, for instance, send complete samples of their cereals and vegetable productions, and and these are curious as illustrating the advantages of soil and climate which yield them, in spite of the most backward husbandry and the most primitive implements, returns of twenty, fifty, or a hundred fold. But only turn to their show in the arts, and some of them may almost set criticism at defiance. By general consent, and beyond all comparison, the first place must be assigned to Japan. The Japanese does most things unlike the rest of the world. His method of handling his tools is precisely the opposite of ours. He draws his plane toward him, works his saw in the reverse direction, taps with the side of his queer hammer, and handles his quaintly-chased graving tool in a way at which an English workman would stare. Yet, whether he is laying the shingles on the roof of a cottage, or chasing one of those wonderfully elaborate caskets in metal work, what English workman can approach him? His ideas discover an endless originality; individual impulse, rather than education, seems to inspire his fancy, although it may work according to received traditions of the quaint or beautiful; and, look where we will through a most miscellaneous collection, we can scarcely see a trace of servile repetition. In his pictorial art he can convey a world of expression and suggestion in the very smallest number of touches. Yet when it pleases him to finish, as when he is painting on his delicate porcelain, he is scarcely to be surpassed in harmonious minuteness. As for his colors, you may puzzle out his secret if you can; at least he shows you in an open case the chemicals which, as he professes, form his ingredients. All that can be said is, that none of the numerous attempts at imitation have ever proved to be any thing approaching a success. That strange superiority in color, not only in the tints, but in their management, is to be remarked in every one of the Oriental courts. The silks of China excel even those of Japan, in their bright blues and gorgeous crimsons; while, for softened brilliancy and exquisite delicacy of blending, the Persian carpets are confessedly unequalled. The invariably subdued beauty of these patterns argues something more than great mechanical perfection in the arts of color-making and dyeing. It is proof of a general purity of taste on the part of the Oriental purchasers for whom the fabrics were originally intended; for, although many of the best may now be consigned to Europe, the manufacture, precisely as we see it, has been practised from time immemorial; there are carpets in the Exhibition called modern by comparison, although they may date back for a century or so, and these are of patterns exactly similar to the latest ones. In every thing exhibited from China and Persia, the work is almost invariably good, and the designs felicitous; although, except in certain specialties, they cannot vie with Japan, yet every now and then one stumbles upon something that is extremely beautiful in art. So much can hardly be said of Turkey. Turkey makes a very imposing display; the Sultan contributed £100,000 toward forming the collection, and some of the great merchants in Constantinople, Smyrna, and elsewhere, have apparently done their best to advertise themselves. There is a good deal shown in Turkey, as well as in Tunis, that would have attracted great admiration had there been no Japan and no China to provoke unfavorable comparison. The famous Turkey carpets can scarcely be said to be satisfactorily represented. The very best, beautiful as the texture is, fall far short, even in that respect, of the Persian; while the contrasts displayed in the body of the Turkish patterns are too often disagreeably violent. But for the most part the carpets exhibited are of a very ordinary class indeed. The inlaid marqueterie and cabinet-work seems rude in design and coarse in execution, if we measure it against the Japanese standards. The carved olive-wood from Jerusalem recalls the pedlers' hawking goods made for sale at the doors of the Holy Sepulchre. Here and there are some exquisite arms among many that are inferior; but even the very best of them are excelled by the Persians. There are graceful shapes in the pottery, but they are not unfrequently marred by defects in the workmanship. There is a great collection of figures in the various national costumes, and the dresses strike one as being somewhat incongruous. On the whole, the only articles in which Turkey may be said to show to decided advantage are some extremely rich furniture stuffs, the choicest of which seem to have been already sold or removed, and the dyed morocco, which, in its vividness of color, shames any thing that can be shown by the West. It must be remembered, however, that the Turk gives almost as many months to the dyeing process as the European allows days. Taste apart, we may perhaps console ourselves for the inferiority which we must confess by repeating that facts like this deliberate process of dyeing furnish the key to much of the Oriental excellence. Time is of no value in the East, and patience and indefatigable perseverance have always been the willing handmaids of their arts and manufactures.—Saturday Review.