Japan (part III)

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This austere vision was very soon to be transformed. After China, there had arrived the world of the Moslems, of India and Persia, of the Portuguese and the Dutch. Japan had either to free her mind of the robust education of the Chinese or else submit to them definitively and surrender her privilege of self-expression. The Kano masters, on the outskirts of the evolution of ideas, were turning the continental tradition into academic formula, little by little, also some of them—Eitoku, for example, a powerful poet of tree forms—unfold an arresting personality in the discipline they observe. Meanwhile, the live elements of the country strongly concentrated scattered energies in the growth of audacity and faith which followed the protectionist edict of lemitsu, which again closed Japan to the outer world. In a movement analogous with the one that was taking place at the same moment in western Europe [It is, moreover, remarkable that the intellectual evolution of Japan should correspond almost exactly, in its general directions, with that of the Occident. Its Renaissance is of the fifteenth century, its classicism is of the seventeenth, its art of pleasure and fashion is of the eighteenth, its landscapists of the nineteenth.]—which was realizing its classic expression in France, in Holland, in Spain, and in Flanders at the same time—Japan found the moment of equilibrium when the spirit, freed from encumbering ritual, became master of the new rhythm; it could then offer to the sleepy crowd a safe refuge for ideas ready to scatter over the rich future. A new architecture is to recreate the statue maker's art, and for two hundred years Japan will pour into it the resources of its flora and fauna; before the end of the period, the artists, by their ingenuity, will be compelled to develop from this architecture even the humblest arts of industrial ornament, which will be dispersed among the people, as the dust raised by the fall of the temple descends upon the plain. When, upon the order of the Shogun lemitsu, Hidari Zingoro built the temples of Nikko, it was in the name of the whole race that this artist, who was an architect, a chiseler, a smith, a beater of copper and bronze, a master of niello, a wood carver, lacquerer, decorator, cabinet maker, and gardener, took possession of the inner realities that Japan was suddenly discovering in herself. These monuments, dedicated to the spirit of the national hero, leyasu, fixed in an epitomized and definitive image the desire of an entire people, which thereby freed itself so as to expand in every direction.

On this convulsive soil, where volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tidal waves have so often destroyed in a few seconds the great cities that lie between the mountains and the sea, the fall of stone walls would crush men every time that subterranean fire bursts through the crust of the earth. A construction of wood, set up simply, offered no resistance to shocks. And the sanctuaries rose amid the forests of cryptomerias and maples whose eternal youth they called upon to witness their unshakable fragility and to sustain their vigor. The temple is mingled with the forest—which enters into the temple. It is conceived like a picture. Often it leads the traveler to its gates by rows of smiling gods, covered with moss and little flowers, and stretching away on both sides of the road to the horizon. Avenues of closely planted trees, black and straight, conduct one to the very stairways of the porticos. Among the horizontal branches hover the roofs of green bronze; the walls of red lacquer rise among the bare trunks; the somber verdure of the cedars continues through the winter to prolong the monumental harmony into the summer. If among the pines there are some clumps of chestnuts, of alders, or of oaks, the autumn will attune them with the creeping dragons of gold and the lines of gold that wind about discreetly with the ornaments of the cornices. The sound of the bells and the gongs mingles with the sound of the cascades and the sound of the moving leaves. The temple of bronze and of bamboo penetrates to the heart of the thickets, and if heavy trunks and broad branches are met on the way, they are surrounded by walls of lacquer so that they may dwell in the temple, in the center of the inner courts, whence their limbs will stretch forth to rejoin the forest.

And into all the halls, too, this somber forest enters, with all its flowers, all its trees, all its mosses, its springs, its birds, its reptiles, and the frailest and humblest of the insects over which each leaf is spread. Through red lacquer, through gold lacquer, through incrustations of metal, mother-of-pearl, or ivory, the forest spreads out its branches over the blood-red or black partitions that mirror the depths of the dawn or the depths of the night; it lets its petals and its pollen rain into the temple, it sends—flying, creeping, or leaping into the temple—its little beasts, innocent or mischievous, for whom every blade of grass serves as a refuge, which hollow out galleries in the subsoil and whose hum resounds in the sunlight of summer days. Nature is merely an inexhaustible reservoir, swarming with small living forms under the deep mass of the branches, and the artist of Nippon has only to seek there at random to gather the things he uses to decorate the house of man or the house of the gods.

After this moment the Japanese artist no longer thinks of art as having any other function. Thus all the teeming life of the surrounding world is introduced, not only into the religious life of Nippon, but into its everyday life. This is more important, for religion is only a wheel—though a necessary one—in the social mechanism. The life of the world is communicated to the Japanese by the kakemonos, the screens, and the bibelots which furnish his dwelling, the prints which pass from hand to hand, by the flowers embroidered on dresses, by the beasts incrusted on the scabbards and hilts of swords, on combs and on caskets. Only, it is not at random that he introduces this world into his wooden and paper houses. It would have broken down the partitions and torn the windows. He does not forget their calculated fragility or their rigid lightness when he lets in the outside world. He makes all the forms yielding and adaptable to the thickness, to the transparence, to the directions and the colors of the constructions and of the lacquer varnishes or the silks that cover them. He has stylized nature.

An erroneous distinction has often been made between the process of reason which consists in stylizing a form and the process of instinct which tends to idealize it. Idealization does not re-form an object; it reconstructs and completes it so as to deduce the most general, the purest, and most hopeful meaning that the object has for man. Stylization adapts it to its decorative function by systematizing the characteristics which appear in practically a consistent manner when the form is studied. The artist saw that all forms and gestures and all architectures in repose or in movement retained certain dominant qualities which defined them in our memory and which, when accentuated by schematic processes, could be applied to decoration with the utmost exactitude. By its power of stylizing the world, Japanese art stands as the most intellectual, if not the most philosophic, of our plastic languages.

Stylization has never been an obstacle to the Japanese artist. On the contrary, it permits him to place his science at the service of a fantasy that knows no limits. It authorizes him to turn into geometrical forms the whole of nature, transposed and recomposed—beasts of silver, pewter, or gold; plants of red or black lacquer; gilded flowers, blue flowers, green flowers; leaves—red or blue or black; nights and days and suns that no longer retain anything of their original colors. But the rigorous logic which brings about order among the sensations out of which the forms came little by little clothes them in another kind of reality, distant, crystallized, and magnificent. Their life exists through their relationships, the object is of no importance save with respect to the one next to it, and the higher type of truth is never in a fact, but in the way of understanding it and of uniting it with the other facts.

The miracle of this well-formed and precise language is that it allows the painters of the islands to retain a personality as clear-cut, as imperious, and as living as that of any artists of the Occident; the miracle is, too, that this language is neither transmitted nor repeated from century to century without contact with nature. Whatever science and certainty there is in his culture, whatever the power of his tradition, the Japanese decorator considers the visible world and takes counsel from it with unwearying enthusiasm. He is forever bending over it, and if he composes from memory so as not to retain anything of the moving form but the strongest appeal it had made to his mind, he does so only after having accumulated, like a collector of insects and plants, the tiniest details of knowledge of that form that he can get from thousands of close studies, wherein the bird lives again, feather after feather, the fish with scale after scale, the leaf with nerve after nerve.

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