Japan (part V)

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And here is a strange thing. Although, like the Greek sculptors, they saw around them nude human forms living and moving, the painters of Japan did not always evoke the human form more successfully than they did that of the larger animals, and it is especially when the human form is their subject that we hesitate to distinguish their need for character from their sense of caricature. . . Undoubtedly, they are moved on seeing the roundness of a woman's arm, or the curve of a breast whose purity seems molded in a cup of crystal The glory of the feminine body rises like a poem from the ardent Koriusai [Middle of the eighteenth century], the painter of warriors and of virgins, to Kiyomitsu (1735-85), to Buntsho (?-1796), to Kiyonaga (1742-1815), the artists who so often remind us of the Greek vase painters—and to the great Hokusai himself (1760-1849), a man who could draw the fat expanse of the haunches or the globelike firmness of a bosom and at the same time could understand the upward thrust of the old volcanoes in the fire of the morning sun, or the rocking of the waves. Almost the whole art of the eighteenth century, here as in the Occident, was a voluptuous homage to the woman in love. Utamaro (1754-1805) is fervent in his passion for the figures which he describes through the beautiful breasts that offer themselves like fruits, the high, hard necks under the hair that is combed upward, the oval faces under the jet-black masses of the hair that is secured by gold pins; Harunobu (1718-70), who is in love with the young girls he meets in the gardens and on the threshold of the paper houses, paints charming idyls in which he associates women and flowers and, through the discreet interplay of the effaced blacks, the burnt-out reds, and the pale greens, gives us glimpses of landscape in which lanterns light up the cherry blossoms that have come out under the snow. The art of these two Japanese would suffice to define the period. But the very strong, very sensual, and very gentle sentiment that even its greatest men had for the beauty of women did not often suffice to conceal the lapses in their expression. Occupied as they were in penetrating the structure of small things, did they perhaps not have the time to analyze the human being? When they speak of him their language hesitates and floats, and formula appears. The feet and the hands, the arms and the legs, are singularly deformed and atrophied in ways that are not always very expressive; one finds them approximately the same among all the Japanese artists, as if one painter had transmitted to the other the patient and meticulous recipe for them.

In the eighteenth century these lapses of expression are rather surprising. The painters who spoke of woman with so ingenuous a love possessed, at that time, a science of line that bordered on abstraction. With Morikuni (1670-1748) and especially with Masayoshi (1761-1824) drawing is no longer anything more than a system, a linear arabesque that silhouettes the movement with a stroke. The powerful modeling of the old masters of India ink is barely suggested by the undulating line whose black accents on the white page give only a slight hint of the succession of the planes and the flight of the contours. The mind of Japan was to evolve fatally toward this prodigious graphology which, by its own realization, satisfies the sensual needs of the imagination in the same way that it is satisfied by the crushed, tapering, or sinuous volutes of the beautiful ideograms. But both expressions lead rapidly to forgetfulness of the external world, to pure abstraction, and to death.

In the full expansion of the Japanese soul, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, the understanding of volume, which is to the language of form what philosophic balance is among the teachings of the senses, the understanding of volume by Motonobu or by Korin (1661-1716) enabled the painters to produce their finest compositions. Even when linear arabesque alone filled the white page, even when the graded stroke did not indicate the density and materiality of things, even then their line was so fat and supple, with sinuosities and swellings that responded so well to the moving modeling of the external organisms, that it sculptured the form on the plane of the paper. To grasp Japanese art at the summit of its power we must look to the work of Korin. All the masters of Nippon, from Sesshiu and Sesson to Hokusai, live in that work, in posse or as a prolongation. And it comes just at the hour when Japan shuts its gates to descend into itself again and when, in a few years, the teaching of the primitives ripens in the meditative atmosphere of moral unity and of peace.

The school of Tosa and the school of Kano united their conquests to form a definitive bone structure as a basis for Japanese sensibility. Mitsuoki (1616-91) exhausted everything precious and rare that the academism of Tosa could offer to the aristocratic soul of the nation. Tanyu (1601-74) employed his verve and his vigor to free Kano from its last servitude to the Chinese. Itshio (1611-1724) struggled joyously against the Buddhist gods and was the first to go out among the peasants. Korin could drink at all the sources, break the fixed traditions to get back to the living tradition, and bind the new presentiments with the ancient realizations.

As a draftsman, he covered his albums with those powerful silhouettes, each one of which specifically incloses, in a swift line, the whole signification of the object synthesized, and, beyond the object, all the echoes that it awakens in the universe that we divine. As a lacquerer, he seems to do no less than reinvent an art which, for ten centuries, passed as the really national expression of the Japanese genius; he brought to fruition within himself the mind of the great lacquerer Koetsu (1557-1637), and created the great lacquerer Ritsuo [Beginning of the eighteenth century]. His brother Kenzan (1663-1743), with Ninsei, the most powerful of Japanese ceramists, the man who could render the dampness of grasses and the freshness of flowers in the fire of his ovens, dipped into Korin's creations as at a natural spring…. As a decorator, he inspired generations of workmen who, a hundred years after his death, still came to ask him for motifs, for counsel, technic, and methods of stylization. When he let the India ink or the thick black varnish flow from the point of his brush, when he polished his lacquers of opaque gold with powdered charcoal, it was as if the whole ancient soul and the whole present-day soul of Japan were suspended within his soul to guide his hand. He had the power to seize, in the life that passes, the imperceptible instant that attaches it to eternal life. A few sparrows on the snow, a line of turtles, or a tuft of reeds sufficed him as a subject; a stroke, a shadow from his brush, and the absolute flows through his work. He seemed suddenly to abandon his color and his form when he had barely sketched them in, as if warned by a prophetic flash that he should go no farther. A leaf of his album took on the grandeur of a fresco.

Before transposing the reptiles and the birds and the fishes and the little mammals and the aquatic grasses into his profound gamut of greens, blacks, reds, and the golds of his lacquers, he had so zealously penetrated the meaning of their animation that it seemed as if that animation was what caused the glistening material to swell. The rolling trot of the mice, the flabby appearance of the toads, the silent flights in the sky, and the undulation of seaweed at the water's edge passed under the glazed skin of his pieces. His heart beat at having understood the enormous force of life that is hidden under the grass we tread on, in the depths of the dark springs in which our gaze is lost, and under the broad leaves which spread themselves out and cast a green shadow. Gold on gold, gold on red, gold on black, red on red, black on gold, the lacquer incrusted with metals seemed, with its creeping forms, its wings, the flowered branches that traversed it, and the pollen of gold powder that rained on it incessantly, an ingot of somber gold in which life trembled.

It was from Korin that there descended upon the later time that wave, formed of the minor industries, which becomes an ever-broadening torrent, and soon gives to any practical object that comes from Japanese hands the character of a work of art. Korin, like every great artist of Japan, remains a workman, and every workman in Japan can become a great artist, whether he is a painter or a lacquerer, a bronze worker or a smith, a ceramist, a wood carver, a carpenter, a gardener, or, like Hidari Zingoro, Korin, and Kenzan, more or less of all of them at once. A close and vast solidarity unites, one with another, all the branches of the most flourishing decorative industry that has ever existed, and it was from the greatest painters that the humblest of the carvers or the engravers got all their motifs. We find in them the spirit of the masters and the same passion, the same skill, and the same power of imposing on matter the direction of that spirit.

Before them, only the Egyptians, when they made the smallest objects, had had the power of giving the aspect of organic life to the minerals of the earth. The fired earthenware of the Japanese has the appearance of animal tissues, or viscera steeped in the sulphur of volcanoes. Their netsukes, the millions of intimate bibelots and mischievous trinkets of which they reaped a sudden harvest in the seventeenth century, are palpitating little things whose ivory, lacquer, or metal our fingers love to caress, as if they were tiny, warm animals hiding in the hollow of our hands. Capable of casting the largest bronze statues that the world possesses, seated colossuses whose raised finger and whose smile dominate houses and forests from afar, these artists have also embroidered in iron and cut it into lace. They found alloys, unknown before, which give to brass the veining of a marble; they mixed and harmonized the metals as a painter amalgamates and grinds colors and assigns to each its part. Iron, the bronzes black or green, tin, gold, and silver, are orchestrated as in the processes of the print makers. Mother-of-pearl and ivory are associated with them, with the intimacy that the sky and the clouds have with the form of the earth. The old suits of mail, in which hammered copper and iron, lacquer and steel, are bound together by cords of crêpe and silk, look like great black scarabs. The Japanese have only to open their windows, and butterflies and grasshoppers, stamens falling from flowers, leaves torn from trees, and the broken wing cases of insects enter and fall here and there, wherever the breath of spring blows them—on paper fans, on earthen pots, bronze vases, lacquer scabbards, and iron sword guards. The fragile life of the ferns and the insects is mingled by the Japanese artists with social and family and military life. Even from pools of blood come little creatures of gold.

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