What is the Japense Art?
The following is a translation of the chapter on Japanese Art from the Dutch version of a book entitled Myths & Legends of Japan, by F. Hadland Davis which had in turn been translated from the English into Dutch. So in essence this is a looped translation, using mainly Google translate translating the text from English to Dutch and back to English again — kind of like a game of telephone.
If one compares the translation below to the original English there are obvious differences, since neither translation is literal or perfect. The Dutch version from which this translation was created was published in 1917. The sweeping generalizations about Japanese art and Japanese society, including the role of women, reflect cultural assumptions of the original author in 1917. The date of original publication should be borne in mind when evaluating the comments made below.
Art in Japan
Sir Alfred East, in his lectures on Japanese art, described art as “great in small things, but small in great things,” and this is, in general, very accurate. The Japanese artist excels in painting flowers, insects and birds. He succeeds excellently, to paint the swirl of a wave, or a branch of cherry blossoms in the light of the full moon, the flight of a heron, a group of pine trees, or a carp swimming in a river; but that eminent gift of precise and fine detail seems to have prevented him from drawing that which we call a great genre, an historical scene with a large number of figures.
That serious desire, to paint different fragments to Nature, was not a narrow-minded or academic concept. Art was not exclusively intended for the kakemono, or hanging scroll, to be hung in a niche of a Japanese house, to be admired for a short time, and then to be replaced by another. Art in Japan was universal, as has not been the case in any other country in the world; a cheap towel had a pleasing pattern, and even playing cards were, unlike ours, works of art.
It has often been claimed that the woman is wooden in Japanese art. This is indeed not the case but it is necessary that we first know something about Japanese woman in real life, before we can form an idea of the way in which she is presented in art. There is a wealth of tradition behind that seemingly motionless face.
It is a curious fact that every face, as long as we are not accustomed to the different Japanese types, is so similar to the other, that there is no way to distinguish them from each other. One might think that nature in Japan was content to repeat the same features every time, but in fact the Japanese face is not without expression in art, but it is an expression quite different from that with which we are familiar, and this is particularly the case when painting Japanese women. Most of us have seen a number of colored prints dedicated to this subject, and do not show the least shadow on the face.
We would be tempted to say that this omission of shadow gives a particularly flat expression to the face, and therefore to make the observation that the work has little artistic merit. But it is indeed not a lack of artistic skill, because the Japanese face is flat, and the artists from that country never forget to give this characteristic. Colored prints, which represent Japanese women, do not express an emotion-a smile, a gesture of languorous desire is lacking; but it would be wrong, from the fact that we find so many negative qualities, to conclude that a colored print of this nature does not express a feeling, and that the general impression is mundane and of little importance.
We must remember a;so that for a long time the Japanese woman has been oppressed. A mere superficial study of that important treatise of Kaibaira, known under the name of Onna Daigaku, or “Multiple Knowledge for Women,” will teach us to understand that it is the duty of every Japanese woman to be loving, kind and virtuous. to obey those who have authority over her, and above all, suppressing her feelings.
If we take all this into consideration, we will gradually discover that there is strength and no weakness in a portrait of a Japanese woman; a calm and dignified beauty, in which every impulse is held in check, as if it were wrapped in a cloud of strict tradition. Yet the Japanese woman, though constantly surrounded by the strictest discipline, has given us a type of femininity that is excellent in her true character of essence, and the Japanese artist has managed to capture the magic power of her temptation.
In the curve of her lines he gives us a picture of the grace of a willow-laden willow, in the patterns on her garment the promise of spring, and behind the small, red mouth a wealth of unlimited possibilities.
Japan owed its art to Buddhism, and it was developed and maintained under Chinese influence. Buddhism gave Nippon her painting, her wall decorations and her exquisite sculpture. The Shinto temples were strict and simple, those of Buddhists filled with everything that art could give them; and finally, and this was not the least important factor, Buddhism was introduced into Japan in Buddhism, with all its elaborate and clean symbolism.
The philosophy of japanese art
A Japanese art critic once wrote: “If, in the middle of a brushstroke, a cut of a sword had cut through the brush, it would have bled”. From this we may deduce that the Japanese artist put his whole heart and his whole soul into his work; it was a part of himself, something that controlled his life, something that was closely related to religion. It is therefore not surprising that he, with that great force behind his brush, was able to give that extraordinary liveliness and mobility to his work, which is so strikingly portrayed in portraits of actors.
Although until now we have only seen the Japanese artist as a master in small matters, he has, with great faith and with great consequence, presented the Gods and Goddesses of his land, and some of the myths and legends associated with them. While excelling in displaying the beautiful, no less, he outlined in the description of the horrible, after all, no artist in the world, with the exception of that from China, has succeeded in displaying the supernatural with better results. What a difference there is between an excellent image of Jizo or Buddha or Kwannon and the image of a Japanese spirit! Extraordinary beauty and ugliness can be found in Japanese art, and those who find pleasure in the numerous images of Mount Fuji and the colors of the images of the women of Utamaru will flee horribly from the ghostly representations of supernatural beings .
Translated from the Dutch from the book Mythen & Legenden van Japan (1917).