Art. The beginnings of Japanese art, as of almost all things Japanese excepting cleanliness, can be traced to China through Korea. Even after Japanese art had started on its independent career, it refreshed its inspiration from time to time by a careful study and imitation of Chinese models; and Chinese masterpieces still occupy in the estimate of Japanese connoisseurs a place only hesitatingly allowed to the best native works. Even Chinese subjects preponderate in the classical schools of Japan. Speaking of the productions of the classical Japanese painters, Dr. Anderson says: "It may safely be asserted that not one in twenty of the productions of these painters, who to the present day are considered to represent the true genius of Japanese art, was inspired by the works of nature as seen in their own beautiful country." Whatever Indian, Persian, or Greek strain may be detected in Japan came through Korea and China in the wake of Buddhism, and is accordingly far less marked—if marked at all—in genuinely native Japanese paintings and carvings than in those archaic remains which, though often inaccurately spoken of as Japanese, were really the handiwork of Korean or Chinese artists or of their immediate pupils.
The most ancient painting now existing in Japan is a Buddhist mural decoration in the temple of Hōryūji near Nara, believed to date from A.D. 607 and to be the work of a Korean priest. For more than two centuries longer, art remained chiefly in Korean and Chinese priestly hands. The first native painter of eminence was Kose-no-Kanaoka, a Court noble who flourished from about A.D. 850 to 880, but scarcely any of whose works remain. That the art of painting, especially on screens, was assiduously cultivated at the Japanese Court during the ninth and tenth centuries, is proved by numerous references in literature. But it was not till about the year 1000 that the Yamato Ryū (lit. "Japanese School"), the first concerning which we have much positive knowledge, was established by an artist named Motomitsu. This school contained within itself the seed of most of the peculiarities that have characterised Japanese art ever since, with its neglect of perspective, its impossible mountains, its quaint dissection of roofless interiors, its spirited burlesques of solemn processions, wherein frogs, insects, or hobgoblins take the place of men. In the thirteenth century this school assumed the name of the Tosa Ryū, and confined itself thenceforward more and more to classical subjects. Its former humorous strain had been caught as early, as the twelfth century by Toba Sōjō, a rollicking priest, who, about A.D. 1160, distinguished himself by drawings coarse in both senses of the word, but full of verve and drollery. These are the so-called Toba-e. Toba Sōjō founded a school. To found a school was de rigueur in Old Japan, where originality was so little understood that it was supposed that any eminent man's descendants or pupils, to the twentieth generation, ought to be able to do the same sort of work as their ancestor had done. But none of the jovial abbot's followers are worthy of mention alongside of him.
The fifteenth century witnessed a powerful renaissance of Chinese influence, and was the most glorious period of Japanese painting. It is a strange coincidence that Italian painting should then also have been at its zenith. But it is apparently a coincidence only, there being no fact to warrant us in assuming any influence of the one on the other. The most famous names are those of the Buddhist priests Chō Densu and Jōsetsu. Chō Densu, the Fra Angelico of Japan, restricted himself to religious subjects, while Jōsetsu painted landscapes, figures, flowers, and birds. Both these great artists died early in the century. They were succeeded by Mitsunobu, the best painter of the Tosa School, and by Sesshū, Shubun, and Kanō Masanobu, all of whom were founders of independent schools. The first Kanō's son, Kanō Motonobu, was more eminent than his father. He handed down the tradition to his own sons and grandsons, and the Kanō school continues to be, even at the present day, the chief stronghold of classicism in Japan. By "classicism" we mean partly a peculiar technique, partly an adherence to Chinese methods, models, and subjects, such as portraits of Chinese sages and delineations of Chinese landscapes, which are represented, of course, not from nature but at second-hand.
The synthetic power, the quiet harmonious colouring, and the free vigorous touch of these Japanese "old masters" have justly excited the admiration of succeeding generations of their country men. But the circle of ideas within which the Sesshūs, the Shūbuns, the Kanōs, and the other classical Japanese painters move, is too narrow and peculiar for their productions to be ever likely to gain much hold on the esteem of Europe. European collectors—such men as Gonse, for instance—have been looked down on by certain enthusiasts in Japan for the preference which they evince for Hokusai and the modern Popular School (Ukiyo-e Ryū) generally. It is very bold of us to venture to express an opinion on such a matter; but we think that the instinct which led Gonse and others to Hokusai led them aright,—that Japanese art was itself led to Hokusai by a legitimate and most fortunate process of development, that it was led out of the close atmosphere of academical conventionality into the fresh air of heaven.
To say this is not necessarily to deny to the old masters superiority of another order. Chō Densu manifests a spirituality, Sesshū a genius for idealising Chinese scenes, Kanō Tan-yū a power to evoke beauty out of a few chaotic blotches, all these and scores of their followers a certain aristocratic distinction, to which the members of the Popular School can lay no claim. Grant the ideals of old Japan, grant Buddhism and Chinese conventions, and you must grant the claims of the worshippers of the old masters. But the world does not grant these things. Chinese history and conventions, even Buddhism itself, lie outside the main current of the world's development, whereas the motives and manner of the Popular School appeal to all times and places. Hence, the world being large and Japan being small, and influence on civilisation in general being more important than an isolated perfection incapable of transformation or assimilation, there can be little doubt that the Popular School will retain its exceptional place in European favour.
The beginning of the movement may be traced as far back as the end of the sixteenth century in the person of Iwasa Matahei, originally a pupil of the Tosa school and originator of the droll sketches known as Ōtsu-e. But a whole century elapsed before Hishigawa Moronobu began to devote himself to the illustration of books in colours and in popular realistic style. Then, towards the close of the eighteenth century, came Ōkyo, the founder of the style known as the Shijo Ryū, from the street in Kyōto where the master resided. Ōkyo made a genuine effort to copy nature, instead of only talking about doing so, as had been the habit of the older schools. His astonishingly correct representations of fowls and fishes, his pupil Sosen's portraitures of monkeys, and other striking triumphs of detail were the result. But none of the members of Ōkyo's school succeeded in disembarrassing themselves altogether from the immemorial conventionalities of their nation, when combining various details into a larger composition. Their naturalism, however, gave an immense impulse to the popularisation of art. A whole cloud of artisan-artists arose,—no longer the representatives of privileged ancient families, but commoners who drew pictures of the life around them to suit the genuine taste of the public of their own time and class. Art was released from its mediæval Chinese swaddling-clothes, and allowed to mix in the society of living men and women. And what a quaint, picturesque society it was, that of the time, say, between 1750 and 1850,—the "Old Japan" which all now know and appreciate, because the works of the Artisan School have carried its fame round the world!
The king of the artisan workers was he whom we call Hokusai, though his real original name was Nakajima Tetsujirō, and his pseudonyms were legion. During the course of an unusually long life (1760-1849), this man, whose only possessions were his brush and his palette, poured forth a continuous stream of novel and vigorous creations in the form of illustrations to books and of separate coloured sheets, illustrations and sheets which included, as Anderson justly says, "the whole range of Japanese art-motives, scenes of history, drama, and novel, incidents in the daily life of his own class, realisations of familiar objects of animal and vegetable life, wonderful suggestions of the scenery of his beloved Yedo and its surroundings, and a hundred other inspirations that would require a volume to describe." Contemporary workers in the art of colour-printing were Toyokuni, Kunisada, Shigenobu, Hiroshige, and others in plenty. Then, in 1853, four years after Hokusai's death, came Commodore Perry, the mere threat of whose cannon shivered the old civilisation of Japan into fragments. Japanese art perished. Kyōsai, who survived till 1889, was its last genuine representative in an uncongenial age. His favourite subjects had a certain grim appropriateness:—they were ghosts and skeletons. Charity compels us to draw a veil over the productions of many so-called painters, which, during the last two decades, have encumbered the shop-windows of Tōkyō and disfigured the walls of exhibitions got up in imitation of European usage. They seem to be manufactured by the gross. If not worth much, there are at least plenty of them. Meanwhile, here and there, a lover of the national traditions still goes on painting the old subjects nearly in the old way.
Japanese art is distinguished by directness, facility, and strength of line, a sort of bold dash due probably to the habit of writing and drawing from the elbow, not from the wrist. This, so to say, calligraphic quality is what gives a charm to the merest rough Japanese sketch. It has been well remarked that if a Japanese artist's work be carried no further even than the outlines, you will still have something worthy of being hung on your wall or inserted in your album. Japanese art disregards the laws of perspective and of light and shadow. Though sometimes faultlessly accurate in natural details, it scorns to be tied down to such accuracy as to an ever-binding rule. Even in the same picture say, one of a bird perched on a tree you may have the bird exact in every detail, the tree a sort of conventional shorthand symbol. Or you may have a bamboo which is perfection, but part of it blurred by an artificial atmosphere which no meteorological eccentricity could place where the painter has placed it; or else two sea-coasts one above another, each beautiful and poetical, only how in the world could they have got into such a relative position? The Japanese artist does not trouble his head about such matters. He is, in his limited way, a poet, not a photographer. Our painters of the impressionist school undertake less to paint actual scenes than to render their own feelings in presence of such scenes. The Japanese artist goes a step further: he paints the feelings evoked by the memory of the scenes, the feelings when one is between waking and dreaming. He is altogether an idealist, and this at both ends of the scale, the beautiful and the grotesque. Were he able to work on a large canvas, a very great ideal art might have been the result. But in art, as in literature, his nation seems lacking in the genius, the breadth of view, necessary for making grand combinations. It stops at the small, the pretty, the isolated, the vignette. Hence the admirable adaptability of Japanese art to decorative purposes. In decoration, too, some of its more obvious defects retire into the background. Who would look on the side of a teapot for a rigid observance of perspective? Still less in miniature ivory carvings such as the netsukes, in the ornaments of sword-guards, the bas-reliefs on bronze vases, and the patterns in pieces (and many of them are masterpieces) of embroidery. As decoration for small surfaces, Japanese art has already begun to conquer the world. In the days before Japanese ideas became known to Europe, people there used to consider it essential to have the patterns on plates, cushions, and what not, arranged with geometrical accuracy. If on the right hand there was a Cupid looking to the left, then on the left hand there must be a Cupid of exactly the same size looking to the right, and the chief feature of the design was invariably in the exact centre. The Japanese artisan-artists have shown us that this mechanical symmetry does not make for beauty. They have taught us the charm of irregularity; and if the world owe them but this one lesson, Japan may yet be proud of what she has accomplished.
There exists, it is true, nowadays a small band of foreign enthusiasts, who deny that the art of Japan is thus limited in its scope, and decorative rather than representative. Having studied it with greater zeal and profit than they have studied European art, they go so far as to put Japanese art on a level with that of Greece and Italy. These enthusiasts have performed and are still per forming a useful function. They are disseminating a knowledge of Japanese art abroad, disseminating it, too, in Japan itself, where it had been suffered to fall into neglect. But their cult of Japanese art partakes of the nature of a religious faith, and like other religionists, they are apt to be deficient in the sense of humour. They are much too much in earnest ever to smile about such serious matters. For instance, one ardent admirer of Japonism in art informs the public that the late painter Kyōsai "was perhaps the greatest limner of crows that Japan, nay the whole world, has produced." Does this not remind you of the artist in whose epitaph it was recorded that he was "the Raphael of cats?" The Japanese are undoubtedly Raphaels of fishes, and insects, and flowers, and bamboo-stems swaying in the breeze; and they have given us charming fragments of idealised scenery. But they have never succeeded in adequately transferring to canvas "the human form divine;" they have never made grand historical scenes live again before the eyes of posterity; they have never, like the early Italian masters, drawn away men's hearts from earth to heaven in an ecstasy of adoration. In a word, Japanese art, as Mr. Alfred East tersely said, when lecturing on the subject in Tōkyō, is "great in small things, but small in great things."
Some of the anecdotes about Japanese artistic notabilities ring curiously familiar to Western ears. Thus, there is the story of the painter Kanaoka, whose horses were so life-like that at night, quitting the screen which they adorned, they trotted off into a neighbouring garden and munched the shrubs, till some ingenious person hit on the plan of adding a rope to the picture in order to tether these lively steeds. The cats of another artist actually caught live rats, much to the relief of the priests inhabiting a temple infested by those vermin. In a third tale it was painted rats that started into life, and scampered off when the rector of the temple came to see what was the matter. We seem to hear an echo of the stories told of Zeuxis and Parrhasios. It is, by the way, somewhat odd that horses and cats should have been selected by the anecdote-mongers; for it is precisely in the portraiture of quadrupeds that Japanese art fails most conspicuously to express anatomical truth. Did they tell us of painted carp or gold-fish swimming away, or of painted mantises biting, we should perhaps lend a more willing ear.
Japanese art-motives form a fascinating study, which the visitor to Japan and the stay-at-home collector may alike master little by little on every scroll, coloured print, picture-book, netsuke, sword-hilt that he bargains for, even on penny fans and twopenny towels; for in the Japanese view of life the tritest articles of daily use should, if possible, rejoice the eye and feed the mind. Odds and ends are not combined merely because they will look pretty, as in the handiwork of our own modern decorators. The art-motives all have a rationale, either in actual reason, as when the pine-tree and bamboo, as evergreens, appropriately symbolise long life, to which is added the plum-blossom for beauty, making a lucky triad; or in idea, such as that which constantly associates the lion and peony, because the former is the king of beasts, the latter the king of flowers; or else in history or legend, or in unalterable convention. Thus, the sparrow and the bamboo go together; the plum-blossom and the nightingale; the bamboo thicket and the tiger; the chrysanthemum and the butterfly; the snow, moon, and blossoms (highly conventionalised); the flute-playing lad on his bull Benkei and his great bronze bell the Gods of Luck each with his tame animal or other appropriate symbol, etc., etc.,—all with a reason. To mix any of these subjects together, as is done by foreign imitators, shocks the trained eye in exactly the same manner as a solecism in grammar shocks the ear. The plain black crow does not perch facing the sun merely for the sake of contrast, though, to be sure, the contrast cannot fail to strike: he does so for the mythological reasons glanced at in our article on the Japanese Flag. Similarly in a thousand other instances. European decorators pursued a like course in the Middle Ages, when, from the shape of the cathedral down to the smallest group of stone figures in a niche, everything possessed a symbolical signification, so that (as Rusk in has set forth at length) Amiens Cathedral is nothing less than the whole Bible in stone. The Japanese are still in that enviable stage, where decoration is organic. They have few mere "patterns." Unfortunately, any treatment of so vast a subject, to be satisfactory, would involve a history of the Japanese and even of the Chinese mind, its religious beliefs, the fairy-tales on which its youth has been fed, the places known to fame, the celebrated personages and picturesque events that have adorned the national annals.
Books Recommended. The foregoing article is founded chiefly on the late Dr. Wm. Anderson's great work, The Pictorial Arts of Japan, which, with its companion work, the Catalogue of Japanese and Chinese Paintings in the British Museum, is probably still the best authority on the subject. Brinkley's Japan and China, Vol. VII. devoted to "Pictorial and Applied Art," is also authoritative. Failing these expensive works ( 8), see the same Dr. Anderson's earlier History of Japanese Art, in Vol. VII. Part IV. of the "Asiatic Transactions." The other chief book bearing on the subject is L'Art Japonais, by Louis Gonse. Very important, too, is Professor Fenollosa's Review of the Chapter on Painting in Gonse, printed in the "Japan Weekly Mail" of the 12th July, 1884. No one genuinely interested in Japanese art should fail to get hold of this elaborate critique, wherein is pleaded, with full knowledge of the subject, the cause of the Japanese old masters as against Hokusai and the modern Popular School whom Gonse had championed. A Japanese Collection, by the well-known collector, Mr. M. Tomkinson, is, we believe, a beautiful, though expensive, work including articles by eminent specialists and a dictionary of Japanese myth and legend. Japanischer Humor, by C. Netto and G. Wagener, gives the explanation of great numbers of art-motives, chiefly comic, with delightful illustrations. It is not easy to recommend any of the briefer and cheaper books on the subject. Perhaps Huish's handy little volume, entitled Japan and its Art, may be mentioned. See also Artistic Japan, a now extinct illustrated journal, edited by S. Byng and to be obtained in volume form.
- See Article on Carving for similar anecdotes.