Japan (part II)

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The archaism that followed the first closing and the classicism that followed the second both developed in the same atmosphere of quietude and work. The political life concentrated in a single capital, Nara for the Fujiwara, Yedo for the Tokugawa. The people, which had been warlike until that time, confided the care of its defense to the military classes, so as to exploit the wealth of the torrents and the coasts and to clear the soil in security. And the sudden peace produced its usual harvests.

Half-effaced symphonies remain to us from these first ages of intellectual concentration, in which Buddhism, shared but very little by the people, shut itself up in the monasteries in order that their silence should enable it to illumine the old silk kakemonos. And through these works Japan saw within herself the rise of her veritable realities. At the moment which is summed up by the work of Kose Kanaoka, for example, we find a hieratic art full of the spiritual radiance of Buddhist painting; and this is paralleled by the appearance, in the somber harmony, of its reds and blacks, of the gold of the backgrounds and the aureoles, to give a warmer patina. But the new problems—those of the idea and those of technic—offer no more than temporary obstacles to the nascent spirit of the Japanese in its manifesting of a vision that was already more direct, more incisive, and clear-cut than that of the artists of the continent. Those three obscure and very slow centuries, when the artists are held in the archaic mold, do not yet, to be sure, permit the Japanese spirit to free itself, since the monastic life in which the intelligence is at work is closed to the life of movement, to what brings enjoyment, to what brings suffering, to what brings understanding. But sometimes, when the monk quits the cloister, when he comes into contact with the pine forests, the torrents, and the dark seas, prodigious flashes of light bring before his eyes—with a clearness that perhaps is not to be found elsewhere in history—the extreme scope of his genius when freed from limitations. Toba-Sojo, the painter, and Unkei, the sculptor, are already true Japanese. The one has quite left the temples; he roams the woods, collects the insects, and spies on the mice and the frogs; he accords to all the beasts a clear-eyed and joyous friendship, and thereby sees them repeating in their own way the gestures of men—which he finds very diverting. The other, to whom the last sculptures of the Buddhist grottoes of China offered a pretext for releasing the unknown forces that slept in his race, suddenly carries his disciplined violence into the brutal effigies of his warrior divinities. [M. Edouard Chavannes has already indicated the analogy that exists between the statues of Unkei and the guardians of the gates of the grottoes of Long-Men. See figures on pages 67 and 113. The evidence is clear. How did the Japanese sculptors come to know these colossuses? Doubtless it was because China exported bronzes and wood carvings that were directly inspired from them.] The vision of Kobo Daishi is quite realized with these furious, simple statues—almost pure, but with an inward impulse toward murder and combat.

Between these two contemporaneous works—that of the painter and that of the sculptor, who are so different in aspect—there is, therefore, only an apparent conflict. They meet at the point where the individuality of the Japanese frees itself from the statue maker's art to affirm itself in painting. The abstract art of the metaphysical systems which are present at the origin of every great civilization was drawing to its close. Unkei is the last of the great sculptors. Sculpture, the religious and hieratic art, which always corresponds with a well-defined society, could not survive the feudal anarchy that preceded the Mongol invasion. In proportion as the remembrance of the teachings from abroad was obliterated, the great traditions declined in the monasteries. Civil wars rent the country. Religion lost its original freshness to become an instrument of political domination. While, to the eyes of the people, the Mikado still represented the old Shintoism of their ancestors, the Shogunate, supported by the pretorians, was opposing Buddhism to the traditional cult. Sculpture obeyed the laws of dissociation dictated by the state of society. It overloaded itself with incrustations, complicated itself with draperies, and, when it lost the calm of its lines, it lost the whole of its spirituality. It is only in the seventeenth century, when the painted wooden effigies of monks were erected, that among the severe profiles united by fleeting passages which envelop them with strength and security, the sculptors found again a little of the radiance of the seated Buddhas whose peaceful countenances had for eight hundred years bent over the faithful, and whose fingers, raised in their pure gesture, had taught them wisdom.

Painting, on the contrary, would not have existed without the invasion. The Japanese soul, which had lost its basis of religion and to which Toba-Sojo had prematurely given a basis of popular life, was getting away from its course and becoming anaemic in the service of the nobles. With the Tosa school, founded in the thirteenth century by Tsunetaka, who claimed to represent the art of the ancient archaic master, Motomitsu, its tenacity very quickly degenerated into minuteness, its science into skill, and its fineness into preciosity. When it reached its end in the academic miniatures, in which the court people satisfied their puerile taste for antiquated things, the national spirit had long since been delivered of its atrophying influence. Japan was weary from turning about in the same closed circle, and, having been assailed by the Barbarians ever since her art had emerged from the monastery, being touched by the immeasurable life of the new ideas that invasion brought with it, she let herself go with the wind.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, when old Kano Masanobu, impressed by the work of the Chinese Josetsu, founded the great school of Kano, he appealed to continental traditions in order to combat the narrow academism of Tosa. In so doing he was following the tendencies that his master, Shiubun, and Sesshiu and Soami and Sesson and Shiugetsu, had already manifested. It was the good fortune of Japan that the Chinese painters of the period were seeking to regenerate their vision by the patient and direct study of animals and flowers. They could inform Japan as to her true nature, tear her away from the religious symbolism for which she was not made, and make it possible for her to follow her individualization along the roads that Toba-Sojo had explored with so much audacity. But the strong discipline of China did not immediately permit the Japanese artists, happily for the development of their mind, to go as far as their astounding precursor. First, they learned the architecture of landscape, they gazed on their country with a religious emotion, they got the appearance of the rocks, the angular trees, the jagged mountains. A rolling murmur followed the reawakening to life, a rude hymn after the silence. Powerful poets of the brush, like Sesshiu, Sesson, and Soami, covered their white paper with those summary black dabs of India ink which give us for the first time the effect of things seen in a mirror dimmed by having lain in water. We see cranes in a sky, ducks in a pond, or the strong lines of a landscape, misty, chaotic, and wooded. Sesson discovered in it fantastic apparitions, dramas of the air and of the lakes —wandering barks, birds at dawn half frozen on the branches, and trees lost in the fog; by his powerful abbreviations he announced Korin. Sesshiu seemed to live with the beasts and to share with indifference their implacable destiny. The violent life of the earth entered him like the breath of his nostrils; he was far from men and seemed to remember the gods no longer. In his somber splashes of ink he gathered up the central forces that issued from the soil of the shaggy, pine-grown hillsides, the sap that poured through branches, the blood that swelled in throats and bellies, the hunger that hardened beaks, the brutal flight that ruffled plumage, the terrible simplicity of natural forms in the presence of instinct, of space, and the wind.

Kano Motonobu, the son of the founder of the Chinese school, could now borrow from the continental painters practically all their subjects, their motifs, and their composition. At bottom there existed such an antagonism between the spirit of the islands and the spirit of the continent—the one resolutely objective and quite devoid of sentimental partiality, the other so often employing the aspects of the world for demonstrating and moralizing—that what Motonobu naturally transmitted to his pupils before all else was the profoundly constructive action of Shiubun and Sesshiu. He brought to his task the power for synthesis that only a predestined genius possesses, and, in him, archaic culture could not fail to establish, on an indestructible base, the powerful sentiment for nature that the Japanese people had been seeking for five or six centuries in the depths of its soil, in the seed that expanded it, in the torrents whose every pool it had explored—whose every stone it had lifted, in the trees of its forests which it cut down and trimmed for the building of its houses. Kano Motonobu saw how the birds polished their feathers in the morning dew and how the cranes stretched out slender legs as they sank earthward in their slow flight. Except for some sleepy creature of the air, its neck under its wing, its plumage ruffled by the cold of the dawn, nothing would be seen but the boats lost in fog and in space. . .

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