Probably of all the Japanese arts there is none more interesting or instructive than that of sculpture in wood and ivory. The sculpture of Japan undoubtedly had its origin in the service of the Buddhist religion. That religion, as I have attempted to show, has always utilised art in the decoration of its temples and shrines as well as in the perpetuation of the image of Buddha himself. At the beginning of the seventeenth century an edict was promulgated directing that every house should contain a representation of Buddha, and, as the result of this, the sculpture trade received a considerable impetus. Tobacco was introduced into the country in the same century, and the smoking thereof soon came greatly into vogue among the Japanese people. Tobacco necessitated a pouch or bag to contain the same, and this in turn induced or produced the manufacture of something wherewith to attach the bag to the girdle. Hence the evolution of the netsuké, now as famous in Europe as in Japan. The carving of netsukés developed into a very high art; indeed, there is perhaps no branch of Japanese art which has aroused more enthusiasm among foreign collectors and connoisseurs. Quite recently I attended a sale of netsukés in London at which the bidding was both fast and furious, while the prices realised were enormous. The netsuké, strictly speaking, was the toggle attached by a cord to the tobacco pouch, inro, or pipe of the Japanese man, with the object of preventing the article slipping through the girdle or sash, but the word has been more loosely employed by foreigners until, in popular parlance, it has come to embrace all small carvings. Netsukés were nearly always representations of the human figure, and various reasons have been advanced to account for this fact. I need not consider those reasons in these pages, as they, as well as the arguments by which they are attempted to be supported, are almost entirely speculative. The distinguishing characteristic of the true netsuké is two holes admitting of a string being run through them. These holes were often concealed behind the limbs of the figure. The material of which netsukés were made varied, and consisted of ivory, wood horns, fish-bones, and stones of various kinds. Those made of wood are undoubtedly the most ancient, ivory being of comparatively recent importation into Japan. Nevertheless, the netsukés made of ivory now command the highest price. The names of many of the great netsuké-makers are still famous, and much of their work is certainly artistic and beautiful to a degree. I am afraid that in the collecting of netsukés many European lovers of Japanese art have burnt their fingers. The genuine old artistic productions are now extremely rare, but a brisk trade has sprung up in reproductions which are skilfully coloured to give them the appearance of age. The netsuké, I must reiterate, was an almost indispensable adjunct to the costume of every Japanese man, and it was, accordingly, made for use and not for ornament alone. Of late years wood and ivory sculpture in Japan has largely degenerated and deteriorated owing to the output of articles not of utility, but made for the foreign market--"curios," in fact.
No one who has visited Japan can have failed of being impressed by those gigantic statues of Buddha which have been erected in different parts of the country. The largest and best known is the Dai Butsu, at Kamakura, a few miles from Yokohama. The height of this great statue is nearly 50 feet, in circumference it is 97 feet. The length of the face is 8 feet 5 inches, the width of mouth 3 feet 2 inches, and it has been asserted--though I do not guarantee the accuracy of the calculation--that there are 830 curls upon the head, each curl 9 inches long. The statue is composed of layers of bronze brazed together. It is hollow, and persons can ascend by a ladder into the interior. The Dai Butsu at Nara is taller than the one at Kamakura. It is dissimilar to most of the others in the country in having a black face of a somewhat African type. This image is stated to have been erected in the year 750 A.D., and the head has, I believe, been replaced several times. In the Kamakura Dai Butsu both hands rest upon the knees, while in the one at Nara the right arm is extended upward with the palm of the hand placed to the front. The statue at Nara is made of bronze which is stated to be composed of gold 500, mercury 1,950, tin 16,827, and copper 986,080 lbs., the total weight of the statue being about 480 tons. Nearly all the Dai Butsus in the country are of ancient workmanship. There is a modern one constructed of wood erected in the year 1800 at Kyoto, 60 feet high. As a work of art it has, however, no pretensions, which rest entirely upon its size.
Criticisms in regard to the artistic merits of these immense images have been numerous and by no means unanimous. To my mind they are superb specimens of the work of the old metallurgists of Japan, and they are, moreover, deeply interesting as indicative of the ideas of their designers in regard to the expression of placid repose of Nirvana. Mr. Basil Chamberlain has appositely remarked in reference to the great statue at Kamakura: "No other gives such an impression of majesty or so truly symbolises the central idea of Buddhism, the intellectual calm which comes of perfected knowledge and the subjugation of all passion." And Lafcadio Hearn, that learned authority on everything Japanese, who has brought into all his writings a poetical feeling which breathes the very spirit of old Japan, has observed in regard to the same statue: "The gentleness, the dreamy passionlessness of those features--the immense repose of the whole figure--are full of beauty and charm. And, contrary to all expectations, the nearer you approach the giant Buddha the greater the charm becomes. You look up into the solemnly beautiful face--into the half-closed eyes, that seem to watch you through their eyelids of bronze as gently as those of a child; and you feel that the image typifies all that is tender and solemn in the soul of the East. Yet you feel also that only Japanese thought could have created it. Its beauty, its dignity, its perfect repose, reflect the higher life of the race that imagined it, and, though inspired doubtless by some Indian model, as the treatment of his hair and various symbolic marks reveal, the art is Japanese.
"So mighty and beautiful is the work that you will for some time fail to notice the magnificent lotus plants of bronze, fully 15 feet high, planted before the figure on another side of the great tripod in which incense rods are burning."
Kaemfer, writing in the seventeenth century, remarked of the Japanese: "As to all sorts of handicraft, they are wanting neither proper materials nor industry and application, and so far is it that they should have any occasion to send for masters abroad, that they rather exceed all other nations in ingenuity and neatness of workmanship, particularly in brass, gold, silver, and copper." In metal work the Japanese have certainly cultivated art to a high degree. Much of that metal work was, of course, employed in connection with articles which modern conditions of life in Japan have rendered absolutely or almost entirely obsolete. The bronze workers of Japan were and indeed are still famous. Their work as displayed in braziers, incense-holders, flower-vases, lanterns, and various other articles evinces great skill, while the effects often produced by the artists in the inlaying and overlaying of metals with a view of producing a variegated picture has long been the wonder and admiration of the Western world. It is almost safe to assert that the finest specimens of work of this kind can never be reproduced. In casting, too, there was no lack of skill in old Japan. The big bell at Kyoto, which is 14 feet high by over 9 feet in diameter, is a sufficient object-lesson as to the proficiency attained in casting in bygone days. Much of the bronze work of Japan, especially in birds and insects, is to me incomparable. The modern bronze work of the country, though certainly beautiful, does not in any respect or any degree approach that of the masters of two or three hundred years ago. In the manipulation of metals and amalgams these men have reached a higher standard of perfection than had previously or has since been attained. The bronze work of Japan is not, in my opinion, as generally appreciated as it deserves to be. There is, I think, nothing of the same kind in the world to be compared with it when it was at its best. Like much of the other art of Japan modern conditions are, as I have said, not conducive either to its progress or development. Still, there is no lack of skill in this particular branch of art in Japan at the present time, and I have seen some very admirable, not to say magnificent, specimens of modern bronze work.
[Illustration: BRONZE INCENSE-BURNER AND SMALL FLOWER-VASE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY]
Armour is now nearly as effete in Japan as in this country, and yet in the decoration of armour the Japanese artist in metal was in the past not only skilful but beautiful. Fine specimens of armour are now extremely rare. That particular kind of work has, of course, gone never to return. Next in importance to armour came the sword. Some of us can remember when the two-sworded men of Japan were still actualities, not, as they have now become, historical entities, the terror of the foreign community there. The sword was an important and, indeed, an essential weapon in the conditions of society that obtained in old Japan, not only for self-defence but for offensive purposes, either in respect of family feuds or individual quarrels, which were almost invariably settled by the arbitrament of the sword. That weapon was also used for those suicides known as hara-kiri, the outcome of wounded honour or self-respect, which were such prominent features in the Japanese life of the past. Some Western writers have attempted to poke a mild kind of fun at this proneness of the Japanese for the "happy despatch" on what seemed to the writers very flimsy or trivial grounds. To me, on the contrary, the practice of hara-kiri, indefensible as it may be in some respects, indicates the existence of a high code of honour, the slightest infringement of which rendered life intolerable. The sword then had innumerable functions, and, like almost every article of utility in Japan, it became the subject of elaborate ornamentation. The blade itself was brought to a high state of perfection, and as regards the tempering of the steel has been the admiration of cutlers in every part of the globe. Indeed the sword-makers of Japan are famous from the tenth century downwards. Many of the sword-blades had mottoes inscribed on them, and most had designs ornate and often elaborate. The accessories of the blade and the ornamentation thereof lent full scope for that artistic adornment which has for ages past, as I have more than once remarked, been characteristic of almost every article used in Japan. The wearing of the sword was confined to persons of a certain rank, and different classes wore different kinds of swords. About the sixteenth century the custom of wearing two swords, one large, the other about the size of a dirk, came into fashion. The two-handed sword was essentially a war sword. The colour of the scabbard was almost invariably black with a tinge of red or green, and it was in most instances beautifully lacquered. The possessor of a sword gave full vent to his tastes in regard to the size and decoration of his weapon. According to Griffis: "Daimios often spent extravagant sums upon a single sword and small fortunes upon a collection. A Samurai, however poor, would have a blade of sure temper and rich mountings, deeming it honourable to suffer for food that he might have a worthy emblem of his rank." On January 1, 1877, the wearing of swords was abolished by an Imperial decree, and foreigners visiting or resident in Japan in that and the following years were able to pick up magnificent swords for a few dollars each.
I have not space to describe in detail the many accessories which went to form the complete sword for the strong man armed in old Japan, or the elaborate and artistic ornamentation of every detail. In many of the small pieces of metal work which adorned the swords gold, silver, platina, copper, iron, steel, zinc, besides numerous alloys were used. The abolition of sword-wearing gave a death-blow to the industry in connection with the making of swords except in so far as it has been continued for the purpose of turning them out for the European market. But during the many centuries the art of metal work, as exemplified in sword manufacture and the ornamentation of the sword and the various accessories of it, existed in Japan it reached a magnificent height of perfection. Dealing only with one period of it a French writer has remarked: "What a galaxy of masters illuminated the close of the eighteenth century! What a multitude of names and works would have to be cited in any attempt to write a monograph upon sword furniture! The humblest artisan, in this universal outburst of art, is superior in his mastery of metal to any one we could name in Europe. How many artists worthy of a place in the rank are only known to us by a single piece, but which is quite sufficient to evidence their power! From 1790 to 1840 art was at fever heat, the creative faculty produced marvels."
Besides the making and ornamentation of swords the metal workers in Japan attained great skill in the design and finish of many other articles which were in constant use by the people--pipes, cases to hold the Indian ink which formed the writing material, the clasps and buttons of tobacco pouches, besides vases, &c. In reference to the making of alloys these metal workers showed considerable ingenuity, the alloys used, amalgams of gold, silver, copper, and other metals in deft proportions, resulting in magnificent effects as regards ornamentation and permanency. Japan has undoubtedly been greatly aided in the height to which the art of the country of various kinds has attained by the plentifulness of minerals therein. Gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, tin, and many other minerals exist. Strange to say, gold at one time was considered no more valuable than silver--a fact which may account for the lavish manner in which it was used for decorative purposes in art of all descriptions.
I fear that an inevitable result of Western influences and the great, indeed drastic, changes which have been effected thereby in the ideas, manners, and customs of the Japanese people has been the decay, if not the destruction, of the art connected with metal work. Sword manufacture and everything relating thereto is, of course, gone; other metal industries are following suit. The result, as I have said, was inevitable, but it is none the less deplorable. Although it requires an expert to deal with and describe in all its infinite detail the metal work of Japan, it does not need an expert's knowledge to profoundly admire it and be lost in admiration at the skill displayed and the pains taken in respect of every part of it. The workers in this, as indeed in all the other art industries of Japan in the past, were quite evidently not men in a hurry or much exercised concerning their output, and scamping their work in order to establish a record. Their hearts must have been in everything they undertook, and their sole aim, whatever they did, to put into their work all their skill and knowledge and love of the beautiful. They, in fact, worked not for pelf but for sheer love of art, and so long as the work of these artists of various kinds endures the world will assuredly never cease to admire it.
Painting has, in Japan, long been greatly cultivated, and in some respects highly developed. There are various recognised schools of painting, but I shall not weary my readers with any attempt, necessarily imperfect as it would be, to describe them in detail. China and the Buddhist religion have profoundly influenced painting as the other arts of Japan. Indeed, the early painters of Japan devoted themselves almost entirely to religious subjects. Most of their work was executed on the walls, ceilings, and sliding screens of the Buddhist temples, but some of it still exists in kakemonos, or wall pictures, and makimonos, or scroll pictures. In the ninth century painting, as well as the arts of architecture and carving, flourished exceedingly. Kyoto appears to have been the great artistic centre. The construction of temples throughout the country proceeded apace, and it is related that no less than 13,000 images were carved and painted during the reign of one emperor. Kyoto was, in fact, the centre of religious art. We are told that the entire city was in a constant artistic ferment, that whole streets were converted into studios and workshops, and that the population of idols and images was as numerous as the human habitation. Nearly all the temples then constructed and adorned have vanished, but that at Shiba still remains to convey to us some idea of the artistic glories of this period of intense religious belief, which gave expression to its fervour and its faith in architecture, carving, and painting. About the thirteenth century flower and still-life painting came into vogue. Almost simultaneously religious fervour, as expressed in art, began to grow cold. The artist became the hanger-on of the Daimio, who was too often employed in burning temples and destroying their artistic treasures. The painter then painted as his fancy led him, and if he treated of religious subjects did not invariably do so in a reverential spirit. From time to time new schools of painting arose, culminating, in the eighteenth century, in the Shijo school, which made a feature of painting animals, birds, fishes, flowers, &c., from nature, instead of adhering to the conventional style which had previously prevailed. The colouring of some of the work of this school is superb and is greatly in request among art collectors.
Of late years painting in Japan seems, to some extent, to have come under Western influences. There is, indeed, a progressive party in painting which not only does not resist these Western influences but actually advocates the utilisation of Western materials and methods in painting and the discarding of all that had made Japanese painting essentially what it is. I confess to a hope that this progressive school will not make quite so much progress as its disciples desire. To introduce European pigments, canvas, brushes, &c., and discard the materials formerly in use, to get rid of the Japanese method of treating subjects, whether landscapes, country scenes, the life of the people, representations of animals, and so on, and replace that method by imitations of European schools of painting, must simply involve the destruction of all that is essentially and characteristically Japanese and the replacing of it by something that is not Japanese or indeed Oriental. The essence of art is originality. I admit that art may come under foreign influences and be improved, just as it may be degraded, by them. If the influences of foreign art are to be advantageous that art must, I suggest, be in some measure akin to the style of the art which is affected by it. For example, the influence in the past of China or Korea upon an analogous style of art in Japan. But for Japanese painters to remodel their peculiar style upon that of Europe must prove as fatal to Japanese painting as an art as any similar endeavour of European painters to remodel their style upon that of Japan would be fatal to the distinctive art of Europe. I make this statement with full knowledge of the fact that some art critics in this country declare that Mr. Whistler and other artists have been largely affected or influenced in their style by a study of Japanese art in painting and its methods.
I have referred to kakemonos, those wall pictures which are such a pleasing feature of the simple decoration of Japanese houses. Many of these are superb specimens of art, and the same remark may be made in reference to the makimonos, or scroll pictures. It may be that not every Western eye can appreciate these Japanese paintings fully at a first glance, but they certainly grow upon one, and I hope the time is far distant when kakemonos will be replaced in Japanese homes by those mural decorations, if I may so term them, to be seen in so many English houses, which are a positive eyesore to any person with even the faintest conception of art. The work of the old painters of Japan, as it appears on kakemonos and makimonos, is now rare. Much of it, as is the case with the other art treasures of the country, has gone abroad. I am, however, of opinion that painting has not deteriorated to anything like the same extent as some of the other Japanese arts. The subjects depicted by the artists have during the centuries from time to time changed, but the technique has altered but little. It does not, I know, appeal to everybody, but it is the kind of art, I reiterate, that grows upon one. No person who has interested himself in painting in modern Japan, especially on kakemonos, can, I think, have failed to be impressed by the exquisite and beautiful work which the Japanese artists in colour to-day produce.
[Illustration: KAKEMONO ON PAPER ATTRIBUTED TO MATAHEI]
[Illustration: KAKEMONO ON PAPER ATTRIBUTED TO SHIMMAN, UKIYO SCHOOL. EIGHTEENTH CENTURY]
Silk and satin embroidery as an industry and an art at one time attained considerable importance in Japan, but of recent years has greatly declined. The craze among the upper classes for European dress has, of course, seriously affected the demand for elaborately embroidered silk and satin garments, and is bound to affect it to an even greater extent in the future as the custom of wearing European garb spreads among the people. No one with any artistic sensibilities can help regretting the fact that Japan is gradually but surely discarding the distinctive costume of her people. That costume was in every respect appropriate to their physique and facial characteristics. The same certainly cannot be said of European attire. However, it is now, I suppose, hopeless to arrest the movement in this direction, and in a comparatively few years, no doubt, the ancient and historic dress of the Japanese people will be as obsolete as the silks, satins, ruffles, &c., of our forefathers.
And what remark shall I make of Japanese curios, the trade in which has assumed such very large dimensions? Have they no claim, some of my readers may ask, to be included in a chapter on art? There is no doubt that many purchasers of them would be shocked were they to be told that there was nothing artistic in many, if not most, of these articles, that they were made simply and solely for the European market, and that the manufacture of curios for this purpose was now just as much a trade as is the making of screws in Birmingham. I am quite prepared to admit that some of the articles included in the generic term "curios," which can now be purchased in every large town in Great Britain, are pretty and effective, but as regards many of them there is certainly nothing artistic or indeed particularly or peculiarly Japanese. This making of curios for the foreign market has, as I have said, assumed considerable dimensions in Japan of recent years, and in connection therewith the Japanese has certainly assimilated many Western ideas in reference to pushing his wares. As an example in point of this I will quote here an anecdote told me by a friend who had a considerable knowledge of Japan in the 'seventies. During one of his journeyings inland, when staying at a Japanese tea-house, he was initiated into the use of Japanese tooth-powder, which is in pretty general use among the lower classes. On leaving Japan he purchased and brought to England a considerable quantity of this tooth-powder, and on settling down in London he discovered a Japanese shop where it was on sale. For some seventeen or eighteen years he purchased the tooth-powder at the shop, sold in the little boxes in which it was vended in Japan, not only using it himself but introducing it to a large number of his acquaintances. One day last year, on going into the shop referred to to make a further purchase, he was informed that they were run out of tooth-powder and did not quite know if they would have any more. My friend returned a month or two later to the same shop on the same errand bent, and asked if they had received a fresh supply. He was told that a further supply had come to hand of very much the same description, but at double the price. He purchased a box, the outside of which bore the following inscription in English: "Japanese Sanitary Dentifrice; Superior Quality. Apply the powder to the teeth by means of a brush, using moderate friction over the whole surface." On opening the box my friend found the powder was perfumed--perfumed for the European market! Now tooth-powder is, of course, not a curio, nor is the expression "moderate friction over the whole surface," I may remark, characteristically Japanese. The little anecdote is, I think, typical of the change that has come over and is still actively in progress in Japan--a change which, however inevitable, and beneficial though in many respects I believe it to be, is most assuredly not beneficial to the interests of art of any kind.
The fact of the matter is that the hurry-scurry of modern civilisation is not conducive to artistic work of any description. The man in a hurry is unlikely to accomplish anything of permanent value. Working against time is utterly subversive of the realisation of artistic ideals. The past, whether in the West or the East, when railways, telegraphs, telephones, newspapers, and all the adjuncts of modern progress were unknown, was the period when men did good and enduring work. They could then concentrate their minds upon their art free from those hundred-and-one discomposing and disconcerting influences which are the concomitants of modern civilisation. The true artist thinks only of his art; for him it is not merely a predominant, but his sole interest. He brings to it all his mind, his ideas and ideals, his energy, enthusiasm, pertinacity; in it is concentrated all his ambition. Extraneous matters can only distract his mind from his art, and accordingly are to be abjured. I fear this exclusiveness, this aloofness, is rare nowadays in the West; it is perhaps less rare in the East, but it is becoming rarer there as Western influences, Western ideas, and Western modes of life and method of regarding life make progress. The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the novelist, the dramatist, if their work is to be other than ephemeral, need an atmosphere of repose and quietude wherein the mind can work and fashion those ideas which are to be given material expression free from all distracting and disturbing influences. Where can the aspiring artist, under modern conditions of life, find such a haven of rest? And even if he find it I fear he too often has no desire to cast anchor there. The distractions of life are frequently alluring, and the embryonic artists of to-day assure us that they must, in modern jargon, keep "in touch" with modern thought with a view of, in modern slang, being "up-to-date." Ideas such as these--and they seem to me to be not only largely prevalent but almost universal--are in my opinion fatal, not only to the development but to the very existence of art. We see in this country the effect upon every department thereof. Poetry, painting, sculpture, literature, the drama, are by almost general consent in a state of utter decadence. The great poet or painter, the great artist in words, on canvas, in marble, or in wood--where is he? Are there any signs or portents of his advent? None. Modern conditions of life have killed the artist, and replaced him by artistic mediocrities or mechanicians who labour not for love but for lucre, and are more concerned about the amount of their output than the quality thereof. And as of England and Europe so I fear is it, and will it be to a greater extent, in the near future in Japan. The artist in lacquer, porcelain, metal, painting, embroidery, cannot exist under the conditions of modern progress. He may still produce good and beautiful work, but it will be no longer artistic in the higher sense of that word, just because those ideas and ideals which make the artist and connote art cannot exist in their fulness and purity amidst the hurry and bustle and turmoil and desire for wealth which are the essential characteristics of the civilisation of Europe and America to-day--a civilisation which Japan has imported, and to a large degree assimilated, and which she must accept with its defects as well as its advantages. We may, and must, regret the effect of this civilisation upon the art of old Japan, but there is no good shutting one's eyes to obvious facts or affecting to believe that in due course we shall witness a renaissance in Japan, a new birth of all that is great and grand and magnificent in her past history.
There has for some years been a movement to prevent, as far as possible, the passing out of Japan of its art treasures. The Government has diligently catalogued all that remain in the temples and public buildings to obviate their being sold, and museums have been built for the purpose of collecting and exhibiting all that is best and representative of Japanese art There has also been a movement among the noblemen and the upper classes in the direction of forming private collections. It was time that steps such as these should be taken. It is a thousand pities they were not taken earlier. The drain of Japan's art treasures went on unchecked year after year, and it is probable that the private and public collections of Europe and America contain more Japanese art treasures than are now to be found in Japan itself. I am aware that in these collections are also to be found no little of the spurious, and many articles with no claim to be considered artistic in any sense of the word, but at the same time there is no doubt that, as I have said, for years, there was a constant export of artistic wealth from Japan. The Revolution of 1868, with its consequent cataclysms, caused the treasures of many of the great families to come on the market, with the result that they were bought up at prices often greatly below their intrinsic value and shipped from the country. They are of course gone for ever, and the only thing that now remains to Japan is to prevent as far as possible any of the treasures which she possesses meeting with a similar fate. I know perfectly well that art, like music, knows nothing of nationality, and that there is no reason why the resident of London or New York should not enjoy the beauties of Japanese art, and feast his eyes on the work of some great Japanese artist of three or four hundred years back just as much as the citizen of Tokio. This is in one sense true, but at the same time one cannot help sympathising with the patriotic desire of a people to retain in their midst specimens of the artistic conceptions and the artistic work of those famous men who are now ashes, but whose work remains as a symbol and an incentive to their countrymen to maintain a high standard, and to practise art simply and solely for the love of it.