Gleaings in Buddha-Fields, by Lafcadio Hearn, , at sacred-texts.com
A VERY interesting essay upon the Japanese art collections in the National Library was read by Mr. Edward Strange at a meeting of the Japan Society held last year in London. Mr. Strange proved his appreciation of Japanese art by an exposition of its principles,—the subordination of detail to the expression of a sensation or idea, the subordination of the particular to the general. He spoke especially of the decorative element in Japanese art, and of the Ukiyo-yé school of color-printing. He remarked that even the heraldry of Japan, as illustrated in little books costing only a few pence each, contained "an education in the planning of conventional ornament." He referred to the immense industrial value of Japanese stencil designs. He tried to explain the nature of
the advantage likely to be gained in the art of book illustration from the careful study of Japanese methods; and he indicated the influence of those methods in the work of such artists as Aubrey Beardsley, Edgar Wilson, Steinlen Ibels, Whistler, Grasset, Cheret, and Lantrec. Finally, he pointed out the harmony between certain Japanese principles and the doctrines of one of the modern Western schools of Impressionism.
Such an address could hardly fail to provoke adverse criticism in England, because it suggested a variety of new ideas. English opinion does not prohibit the importation of ideas: the public will even complain if fresh ideas be not regularly set before it. But its requirement of them is aggressive: it wants to have an intellectual battle over them. To persuade its unquestioning acceptance of new beliefs or thoughts,—to coax it to jump to a conclusion,—were about as easy as to make the mountains skip like rams. Though willing to be convinced, providing the idea does not appear "morally dangerous," it must first be assured of the absolute correctness of every step in the mental process by which the
novel conclusion has been reached. That Mr. Strange's just but almost enthusiastic admiration of Japanese art could pass without challenge was not possible; yet one would scarcely have anticipated a challenge from the ranks of the Japan Society itself. The report, however, shows that Mr. Strange's views were received even by that society in the characteristic English way. The idea that English artists could learn anything important from the study of Japanese methods was practically pooh-poohed; and the criticisms made by various members indicated that the philosophic part of the paper had been either misunderstood or unnoticed. One gentleman innocently complained that he could not imagine "why Japanese art should be utterly wanting in facial expression." Another declared that there could never have been any lady like the ladies of the Japanese prints; and he described the faces therein portrayed as "absolutely insane."
Then came the most surprising incident of the evening,—the corroboration of these adverse criticisms by his excellency the Japanese Minister, with the apologetic remark that
the prints referred to "were only regarded as common things in Japan." Common things I Common, perhaps, in the judgment of other generations; æsthetic luxuries to-day. The artists named were Hokusai, Toyokuni, Hiroshigé, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada! But his excellency seemed to think the subject trifling; for he took occasion to call away the attention of the meeting, irrelevantly as patriotically, to the triumphs of the war. In this he reflected faithfully the Japanese Zeitgeist, which can scarcely now endure the foreign praise of Japanese art. Unfortunately, those dominated by the just and natural martial pride of the hour do not reflect that while the development and maintenance of great armaments—unless effected with the greatest economical caution—might lead in short order to national bankruptcy, the future industrial prosperity of the country is likely to depend in no small degree upon the conservation and cultivation of the national art sense. Nay, those very means by which Japan won her late victories were largely purchased by the commercial results of that very art sense to which his excellency seemed to attach no importance. Japan must
continue to depend upon her æsthetic faculty, even in so commonplace a field of industry as the manufacture of mattings; for in mere cheap production she will never be able to undersell China.
Although the criticisms provoked by Mr. Strange's essay were unjust to Japanese art, they were natural, and indicated nothing worse than ignorance of that art and miscomprehension of its purpose. It is not an art of which the meaning can be read at a glance: years of study are necessary for a right comprehension of it. I cannot pretend that I have mastered the knowledge of its moods and tenses, but I can say truthfully that the faces in the old picture-books and in the cheap prints of to-day, especially those of the illustrated Japanese newspapers, do not seem to me in the least unreal, much less "absolutely insane." There was a time when they did appear to me fantastic. Now I find them always interesting, occasionally beautiful. If I am told that no other European would say so, then I must declare all other
Europeans wrong. I feel sure that, if these faces seem to most Occidentals either absurd or soulless, it is only because most Occidentals do not understand them; and even if his excellency the Japanese Minister to England be willing to accept the statement that no Japanese women ever resembled the women of the Japanese picture-books and cheap prints, I must still refuse to do so. Those pictures, I contend, are true, and reflect intelligence, grace, and beauty. I see the women of the Japanese picture—books in every Japanese street. I have beheld in actual life almost every normal type of face to be found in a Japanese picture-book: the child and the girl, the bride and the mother, the matron and the grandparent; poor and rich; charming or commonplace or vulgar. If I am told that
[1. That Japanese art is capable of great things in ideal facial expression is sufficiently proved by its Buddhist images. In ordinary prints the intentional conventionalism of the faces is hardly noticeable when the drawing is upon a small scale; and the suggestion of beauty is more readily perceived in such cases. But when the drawing has a certain dimension,—when the face-oval, for instance, has a diameter of more than an inch,—the same treatment may seem inexplicable to eyes accustomed to elaborated detail.]
trained art critics who have lived in Japan laugh at this assertion, I reply that they cannot have lived in Japan long enough, or felt her life intimately enough, or studied her art impartially enough, to qualify themselves to understand even the commonest Japanese drawing.
Before I came to Japan I used to be puzzled by the absence of facial expression in certain Japanese pictures. I confess that the faces, although not even then devoid of a certain weird charm, seemed to me impossible. Afterwards, during the first two years of Far-Eastern experience,—that period in which the stranger is apt to imagine that he is learning all about a people whom no Occidental can ever really understand,—I could recognize the grace and truth of certain forms, and feel something of the intense charm of color in Japanese prints; but I had no perception of the deeper meaning of that art. Even the full significance of its color I did not know: much that was simply true I then thought outlandish. While conscious of the charm of many things, the reason of the charm I could not guess. I imagined the apparent conventionalism
of the faces to indicate the arrested development of an otherwise marvelous art faculty. It never occurred to me that they might be conventional only in the sense of symbols which, once interpreted, would reveal more than ordinary Western drawing can express. But this was because I still remained under old barbaric influences,—influences that blinded me to the meaning of Japanese drawing. And now, having at last learned a little, it is the Western art of illustration that appears to me conventional, undeveloped, semi-barbarous. The pictorial attractions of English weeklies and of American magazines now impress me as flat, coarse, and clumsy. My opinion on the subject, however, is limited to the ordinary class of Western illustration as compared with the ordinary class of Japanese prints.
Perhaps somebody will say that, even granting my assertion, the meaning of any true art should need no interpretation, and that the inferior character of Japanese work is proved by the admission that its meaning is not universally recognizable. Whoever makes such a criticism must imagine Western art to be
everywhere equally intelligible. Some of it—the very best—probably is; and some of Japanese art also is. But I can assure the reader that the ordinary art of Western book illustration or magazine engraving is just as incomprehensible to Japanese as Japanese drawings are to Europeans who have never seen Japan. For a Japanese to understand our common engravings, he must have lived abroad. For an Occidental to perceive the truth, or the beauty, or the humor of Japanese drawings, he must know the life which those drawings reflect.
One of the critics at the meeting of the Japan Society found fault with the absence of facial expression in Japanese drawing as conventional. He compared Japanese art on this ground with the art of the old Egyptians, and held both inferior because restricted by convention. Yet surely the age which makes Laocoön a classic ought to recognize that Greek art itself was not free from conventions. It was an art which we can scarcely hope ever to equal; but it was more conventional than any existing form of art. And since it proved that even the divine could find
development within the limits of artistic convention, the charge of formality is not a charge worth making against Japanese art. Somebody may respond that Greek conventions were conventions of beauty, while those of Japanese drawing have neither beauty nor meaning. But such a statement is possible only because Japanese art has not yet found its Winckelmann nor its Lessing, whereas Greek art, by the labor of generations of modern critics and teachers, has been made somewhat more comprehensible to us than it could have been to our barbarian forefathers. The Greek conventional face cannot be found in real life, no living head presenting so large a facial angle; but the Japanese conventional face can be seen everywhere, when once the real value of its symbol in art is properly understood. The face of Greek art represents an impossible perfection, a superhuman evolution. The seemingly inexpressive face drawn by the Japanese artists represents the living, the actual, the every-day. The former is a dream; the latter is a common fact.
A partial explanation of the apparent physiognomical conventionalism in Japanese drawing is just that law of the subordination of individualism to type, of personality to humanity, of detail to feeling, which the miscomprehended lecturer, Mr. Edward Strange, vainly tried to teach the Japan Society something about. The Japanese artist depicts an insect, for example, as no European artist can do: he makes it live; he shows its peculiar motion, its character, everything by which it is at once distinguished as a type,—and all this with a few brush-strokes. But he does not attempt to represent every vein upon each of its wings, every separate joint of its antennæ: he depicts it as it is really seen at a glance, not as studied in detail. We never see all the details of the body of a grasshopper, a butterfly, or a bee, in the moment that we perceive it perching somewhere; we observe
[1. Unless he carves it. In that case, his insect—cut in bone or horn or ivory, and appropriately colored—can sometimes scarcely be distinguished from a real insect, except by its weight, when held in the hand. Such absolute realism, however, is only curious, not artistic.]
only enough to enable us to decide what kind of a creature it is. We see the typical, never the individual peculiarities. Therefore the Japanese artist paints the type alone. To reproduce every detail would be to subordinate the type character to the individual peculiarity. A very minute detail is rarely brought out except when the instant recognition of the type is aided by the recognition of the detail; as, for example, when a ray of light happens to fall upon the joint of a cricket's leg, or to reverberate from the mail of a dragonfly in a double-colored metallic flash. So likewise in painting a flower, the artist does not depict a particular, but a typical flower: he shows the morphological law of the species, or, to speak symbolically, nature's thought behind the form. The results of this method may astonish even scientific men. Alfred Russel Wallace speaks of a collection of Japanese sketches of plants as "the most masterly things" that he ever saw. "Every stem, twig, and leaf," he declares, "is produced by single touches of the brush; the character and perspective of very complicated plants being admirably given, and the articulations
of stem and leaves shown in a most scientific manner." (The italics are my own.) Observe that while the work is simplicity itself, "produced by single touches of the brush," it is nevertheless, in the opinion of one of the greatest living naturalists, "most scientific." And why? Because it shows the type character and the law of the type. So again, in portraying rocks and cliffs, hills and plains, the Japanese artist gives us the general character, not the wearisome detail of masses; and yet the detail is admirably suggested by this perfect study of the larger law. Or look at his color studies of sunsets and sunrises: he never tries to present every minute fact within range of vision, but offers us only those great luminous tones and chromatic blendings which, after a thousand petty details have been forgotten, still linger in the memory, and there recreate the feeling of what has been seen.
Now this general law of the art applies to Japanese representations of the human figure, and also (though here other laws too come into play) of the human face. The general types are given, and often with a force that
the cleverest French sketcher could scarcely emulate; the personal trait, the individual peculiarity, is not given. Even when, in the humor of caricature or in dramatic representation, facial expression is strongly marked, it is rendered by typical, not by individual characteristics, just as it was rendered upon the antique stage by the conventional masks of Greek actors.
A few general remarks about the treatment of faces in ordinary Japanese drawing may help to the understanding of what that treatment teaches.
Youth is indicated by the absence of all but essential touches, and by the clean, smooth curves of the face and neck. Excepting the touches which suggest eyes, nose, and mouth, there are no lines. The curves speak sufficiently of fullness, smoothness, ripeness. For story-illustration it is not necessary to elaborate feature, as the age or condition is indicated by the style of the coiffure and the fashion of the dress. In female figures, the absence of eyebrows indicates the wife or
widow; a straggling tress signifies grief; troubled thought is shown by an unmistakable pose or gesture. Hair, costume, and attitude are indeed enough to explain almost everything. But the Japanese artist knows how, by means of extremely delicate variations in the direction and position of the half dozen touches indicating feature, to give some hint of character, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic; and this hint is seldom lost upon a Japanese eye. Again, an almost imperceptible hardening or softening of these touches has moral significance. Still, this is never
[1. In modem Japanese newspaper illustrations (I refer particularly to the admirable woodcuts illustrating the feuilletons of the Ôsaka Asahi Shimbun) these indications are quite visible even to a practiced foreign eye. The artist of the Asahi Shimbun is a woman.
I am here reminded of a curious fact which I do not remember having seen mention of in any book about Japan. The newly arrived Westerner often complains of his inability to distinguish one Japanese from another, and attributes this difficulty to the absence of strongly marked physiognomy in the race. He does not imagine that our more sharply accentuated Occidental physiognomy produces the very same effect upon the Japanese. Many and many a one has said to me, "For a long time I found it very bard to tell one foreigner from another: they all seemed to me alike."]
individual: it is only the hint of a physiognomical law. In the case of immature youth (boy and girl faces), there is merely a general indication of softness and gentleness,—the abstract rather than the concrete charm of childhood.
In the portrayal of maturer types the lines are more numerous and more accentuated,—illustrating the fact that character necessarily becomes more marked in middle age, as the facial muscles begin to show. But there. is only the suggestion of this change, not any study of individualism.
In the representation of old age, the Japanese artist gives us all the wrinkles, the hollows, the shrinking of tissues, the "crow's feet," the gray hairs, the change in the line of the face following upon loss of teeth. His old men and women show character. They delight us by a certain worn sweetness of expression, a look of benevolent resignation; or they repel us by an aspect of hardened cunning, avarice, or envy. There are many types of old age; but they are types of human conditions, not of personality. The picture is not drawn from a model; it is not the reflection
of an individual existence: its value is made by the recognition which it exhibits of a general physiognomical or biological law.
Here it is worth while to notice that the reserves of Japanese art in the matter of facial expression accord with the ethics of Oriental society. For ages the rule of conduct has been to mask all personal feeling as far as possible,—to hide pain and passion under an exterior semblance of smiling amiability or of impassive resignation. One key to the enigmas of Japanese art is Buddhism.
I have said that when I now look at a, foreign illustrated newspaper or magazine I can find little pleasure in the engravings. Most often they repel me. The drawing seems to me coarse and hard, and the realism of the conception petty. Such work leaves nothing to the imagination, and usually betrays the effort which it cost. A common Japanese drawing leaves much to the imagination,—nay, irresistibly stimulates it,—and never betrays effort. Everything in a common European engraving is detailed and
individualized. Everything in a Japanese drawing is impersonal and suggestive. The former reveals no law: it is a study of particularities. The latter invariably teaches something of law, and suppresses particularities except in their relation to law.
One may often hear Japanese say that Western art is too realistic; and the judgment contains truth. But the realism in it which offends Japanese taste, especially in the matter of facial expression, is not found fault with merely because of minuteness of detail. Detail in itself is not condemned by any art; and the highest art is that in which detail is most exquisitely elaborated. The art which saw the divine, which rose above nature's best, which discovered supramundane ideals for animal and even floral shapes, was characterized by the sharpest possible perfection of detail. And in the higher Japanese art, as in the Greek, the use of detail aids rather than opposes the aspirational aim. What most displeases in the realism of our modern illustration is not multiplicity of detail, but, as we shall presently see, signification of detail.
The queerest fact about the suppression of
physiognomical detail in Japanese art is that this suppression is most evident just where we should least expect to find it, namely, in those creations called "This-miserable-world pictures" (Ukiyo-yé), or, to use a corresponding Western term, "Pictures of this Vale of Tears." For although the artists of this school have really given us pictures of a very beautiful and happy world, they professed to reflect truth. One form of truth they certainly presented, but after a manner at variance with our common notions of realism. The Ukiyo-yé artist drew actualities, but not repellent or meaningless actualities; proving his rank even more by his refusal than by his choice of subjects. He looked for dominant laws of contrast and color, for the general character of nature's combinations, for the order of the beautiful as it was and is. Otherwise his art was in no sense aspirational; it was the art of the larger comprehension of things as they are. Thus he was rightly a realist, notwithstanding that his realism appears only in the study of constants, generalities, types. And as expressing the synthesis of common fact, the systematization of natural law, this Japanese
art is by its method scientific in the true sense. The higher art, the aspirational art (whether Japanese or old Greek), is, on the contrary, essentially religious by its method.
Where the scientific and the aspirational extremes of art touch, one may expect to find some universal æsthetic truth recognized by both. They agree in their impersonality: they refuse to individualize. And the lesson of the very highest art that ever existed suggests the true reason for this common refusal.
What does the charm of an antique head express, whether in marble, gem, or mural painting,—for instance, that marvelous head of Leucothea which prefaces the work of Winckelmann? Needless to seek the reply from works of mere art critics. Science alone can furnish it. You will find it in Herbert Spencer's essay on Personal Beauty. The beauty of such a head signifies a superhumanly perfect development and balance of the intellectual faculties. All those variations of feature constituting what we call "expression" represent departures from a perfect type just in proportion as they represent what is termed "character;"—and they are, or ought to be,
more or less disagreeable or painful because "the aspects which please us are the outward correlatives of inward perfections, and the aspects which displease us are the outward correlatives of inward imperfections." Mr. Spencer goes on to say that although there are often grand natures behind plain faces, and although fine countenances frequently hide small souls, "these anomalies do not destroy the general truth of the law any more than the perturbations of planets destroy the general ellipticity of their orbits."
Both Greek and Japanese art recognized the physiognomical truth which Mr. Spencer put into the simple formula, "Expression is feature in the making." The highest art, Greek art, rising above the real to reach the divine, gives us the dream of feature perfected. Japanese realism, so much larger than our own as to be still misunderstood, gives us only "feature in the making," or rather, the general law of feature in the making.
Thus we reach the common truth recognized equally by Greek art and by Japanese
art, namely, the non-moral significance of individual expression. And our admiration of the art reflecting personality is, of course, non-moral, since the delineation of individual imperfection is not, in the ethical sense, a subject for admiration.
Although the facial aspects which really attract us may be considered the outward correlatives of inward perfections, or of approaches to perfections, we generally confess an interest in physiognomy which by no means speaks to us of inward moral perfections, but rather suggests perfections of the reverse order. This fact is manifested even in daily life. When we exclaim, "What force!" on seeing a head with prominent bushy brows, incisive nose, deep-set eyes, and a massive jaw, we are indeed expressing our recognition of force, but only of the sort of force underlying instincts of aggression and brutality. When we commend the character of certain strong aquiline faces, certain so-called Roman profiles, we are really commending the traits that mark a race of prey. It is true that we do not admire faces in which only brutal, or cruel, or cunning traits
exist; but it is true also that we admire the indications of obstinacy, aggressiveness, and harshness when united with certain indications of intelligence. It may even be said that we associate the idea of manhood with the idea of aggressive power more than with the idea of any other power. Whether this power be physical or intellectual, we estimate it in our popular preferences, at least, above the really superior powers of the mind, and call intelligent cunning by the euphemism of "shrewdness." Probably the manifestation in some modern human being of the Greek ideal of masculine beauty would interest the average observer less than a face presenting an abnormal development of traits the reverse of noble,—since the intellectual significance of perfect beauty could be realized only by persons capable of appreciating the miracle of a perfect balance of the highest possible human faculties. In modern art we look for the feminine beauty which appeals to the feeling of sex, or for that child-beauty which appeals to the instincts of parenthood; and we should characterize real beauty in the portrayal of manhood not only as unnatural, but
as effeminate. War and love are still the two dominant tones in that reflection of modern life which our serious art gives. But it will be noticed that when the artist would exhibit the ideal of beauty or of virtue, he is still obliged to borrow from antique knowledge. As a borrower, he is never quite successful, since he belongs to a humanity in many respects much below the ancient Greek level. A German philosopher has well said, "The resuscitated Greeks would, with perfect truth, declare our works of art in all departments to be thoroughly barbarous." How could they be otherwise in an age which openly admires intelligence less because of its power to create and preserve than because of its power to crush and destroy?
Why this admiration of capacities which we should certainly not like to have exercised against ourselves? Largely, no doubt, because we admire what we wish to possess, and we understand the immense value of aggressive power, intellectual especially, in the great competitive struggle of modern civilization.
As reflecting both the trivial actualities and the personal emotionalism of Western life, our
art would be found ethically not only below Greek art, but even below Japanese. Greek art expressed the aspiration of a race toward the divinely beautiful and the divinely wise. Japanese art reflects the simple joy of existence, the perception of natural law in form and color, the perception of natural law in change, and the sense of life made harmonious by social order and by self-suppression. Modern Western art reflects the thirst of pleasure, the idea of life as a battle for the right to enjoy, and the unamiable qualities which are indispensable to success in the competitive struggle.
It has been said that the history of Western civilization is written in Western physiognomy. It is at least interesting to study Western facial expression through Oriental eyes. I have frequently amused myself by showing European or American illustrations to Japanese children, and hearing their artless comments upon the faces therein depicted. A complete record of these comments might prove to have value as well as interest; but for present purposes I shall offer only the result of two experiments.
The first was with a little boy, nine years old, before whom, one evening, I placed several numbers of an illustrated magazine. After turning over a few of the pages, ho exclaimed, "Why do foreign artists like to draw horrible things?"
"What horrible things?" I inquired.
"These," he said, pointing to a group of figures representing voters at the polls.
"Why, those are not horrible," I answered.
"We think those drawings very good."
"But the faces! There cannot really be such faces in the world."
"We think those are ordinary men. Really horrible faces we very seldom draw."
He stared in surprise, evidently suspecting that I was not in earnest.
To a little girl of eleven I showed some engravings representing famous European beauties.
"They do not look bad," was her comment. "But they seem so much like men, and their eyes are so big! . . . Their mouths are pretty."
The mouth signifies a great deal in Japanese
physiognomy, and the child was in this regard appreciative. I then showed her some drawings from life, in a New York periodical. She asked, "Is it true that there are people like those pictures?"
"Plenty," I said. "Those are good, common faces,—mostly country folk, farmers."
"Farmers! They are like Oni [demons] from the jigoku [Buddhist hell]."
"No," I answered, "there is nothing very bad in those faces. We have faces in the West very much worse."
"Only to see them," she exclaimed, "I should die! I do not like this book."
I set before her a Japanese picture-book,—a book of views of the Tokaido. She clapped her hands joyfully, and pushed my half-inspected foreign magazine out of the way.