Japan (part VI)

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It was the period when art resolutely left the temples and the castles to overflow the street, as after the great centuries of Greece. It was the period when Matahei [Middle of the eighteenth century],a direct, sumptuous, and rare painter, turned his back on dogmatic teaching and opened the way to that ''low school" which expresses with the greatest evocative force, to Occidental eyes, the everyday soul of Japan. The genius of Korin, alone and free, the struggle of Goshin (1741-1811) against a half return to the Chinese school—favored by Okio (1732-95), the powerful portrayer of great wild birds—and above all, the appearance of prints, popularized by the severe harmonies of Moronobu (1638-1711) and of engraving in colors which was invented by Kiyonobu (1667-1729)—all this protected and helped along the activity of the school of the people. Netsukes, potteries, lacquers, inros, and surimonos were sold in every bazaar.

Prints invade the houses of the middle classes and of the common people. Views of the sea, of the mountains and the woods, the dresses of passing women, pennants, signs, colored-paper lanterns, the whole noisy, bustling, twinkling fairyland of the Japanese, permitted the engravers of the people's prints to expend, in miraculous profusion, the fantasy and power of their genius as colorists, dramatists, and storytellers. Europe came to know Japan by this popularized art, by this infinite subdividing of the central force that Sesshiu, Motonobu, and Korin revealed to their country for the glory of man. It is not altogether the fault of Europe if, in unpacking its boxes of tea, its lacquer caskets, and its bamboo furniture, it hardly saw more at first than the slightly comical exterior of the Japanese soul. For only the externals were at first conveyed by that rising sea of little colored papers on which stretched out parades of screen figures in epic posture; gnarled landscapes; warriors streaked with blood; convulsive actors; bedizened, painted, pale women; and artisans, fishermen, reapers, and children—all a little droll—and multicolored, gesticulating crowds, and evening festivals on the waters. In that strange confusion the surprised senses of Europe could for some time discover nothing but violent colors and disjointed gestures, and it was only little by little that there came to be perceived a power of orchestration and a passion for characterizing things that carried a flood of revealing sensations into the Occidental mind. How should we, without Hiroshige, have witnessed the progressive illumination and darkening of the skies over the islands of Japan, how should we have discovered the limpidity of the great dawns that come up over their horizon lines, the tall, bare trunks of the pines which shoot up from the Japanese roadsides, giving glimpses between of the deep azure of the air and the sea, the somber harmony of the snows, the mass of the waters which are almost black and against which white sails follow one another? He has shown us how the rainstorms drive the birds and bend the treetops, he has shown us the poetry of the blue nights of his country when the trees are in flower, and how its lakes are lit up by fireworks and the lanterns that dance above the wooden bridges; we see the crowded boats and the musicians that play in them. How should we have known Japan without the pure Utamaro who frequented the courtesans and stopped at doorsteps to see mothers giving the breast to their little ones; and without the trenchant Toyokuni, the boon companion of the actors; and without Shunsho, who spread the colors on his prints like streams of flowers; and without Kiyonaga, the reserved lover of the long feminine forms, the bare legs, breasts, shoulders, and arms that look out from amid the discreet harmonies of silk kimonos and half-lit houses; and without Harunobu, around whom women, like flowering reeds, enchant the earth; and without the infinite Hokusai, how should we have assimilated the value of the lines which, outside the realm of all scientific perspective, solely by their expressive force, symbolize the succession of the planes in unlimited space? How could we do otherwise than forget that they no longer knew Sesshiu, Motonobu, and Korin as their models when, to intoxicate our eyes, their flat tints shook out before us the folds and lining of the robes and combined them into orchestral harmonies? We see this clearly, even from our distance, as when one is on a height from which hollows and projections are effaced, one discovers the design of a great landscape garden.

With flowers of green or blue, with flowers of flame, with red leaves and golden leaves, the Japanese embroidered robes in which the dawn rises or the daylight falls, and all the blood of the veins is spread out on them and all the snow of the mountains as it glares in the sunlight; the fiery clouds that float in the twilight are on those robes, and the fields veiled in mist—rose, mauve, or azure—and the fruits whose downy skin turns color as they ripen, and the silent rain of glycine petals as they fall on sleeping water, and the pink and white haze of the flowering fruit trees. Tossed upon the robes as the wind might toss them, the Japanese weavers and embroiderers have set frightened birds in flight, and into the folds they have twisted convulsive monsters. In the crinkling silk they have opened up landscapes where leaves and waters murmur, and—as if seen through autumn foliage—the innumerable suns of the imperial chrysanthemum appear. The blacks, those deep and absolute blacks that almost always have a part in their designs, by the stripes or spots on cloths, or, in their pictures, by the note of the hair as it piles up in flat coils, or by the fat arabesque of the powerful ideograms, their blacks are the muted accompaniment against which the violent melodies shriek their drama and then grow calm and then re-echo and die. . . When the women pass in procession across the prints of Nippon, we do not know surely whether the flowers, the dead leaves, or the whirling snowflakes on their silk kimonos were scattered there by the summer, the autumn, or the winter they have traversed—or whether it is not just the walk of these far-away creatures which spreads about them the summer, the autumn, or the winter. Everything sings when they come, even violent death. The landscape responds to them, the landscape with its pink branches from which the petals will fall like snowflakes, the landscape where the flowers resist the frost, the landscape with its limpid skies over serene waters, the nocturnal landscape where women—moving gardens in themselves—pass against backgrounds uniformly black.

The sap of Japan, in these millions of flying leaves, fell like ever-heavier raindrops, but also it got farther and farther from its roots. The country had been closed for two hundred years, deaf to the voices from without—and the voices from within beat against unscalable walls. Too long deprived of the opportunity for interchange, which is life, impotent to renew itself, its soul contracted into itself, grew enervated, and lost itself, little by little, in detail and in anecdote. Let us admit as much. The art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, despite the abundance in which it spouted forth, despite its verve and its life, seems a little frail and troubled, feverish and caricaturish beside that of the preceding epochs. The great Hokusai himself, the protean poet, the man with a hundred names who filled more than five hundred volumes and twenty thousand prints with his thought, "the old man mad about drawing," the distracted vagabond who gave its climax to the art of the people and scattered the spirit of Japan to the four corners of the heavens, as a great wind despoils the forests of autumn—the great Hokusai himself is an expression of the decadence. He has for his suffering fellow-creatures the unconcealed passion that was perhaps possessed, among us, by Rembrandt alone; he had that powerful minuteness that one finds only in Dürer, and that love of aerial landscapes in which Claude Lorrain and Veronese saw the tremble of their gold and silver; his verve—cynical or terrible or bantering or sinister or harrowing—is the same as that with which Goya tore from the world of forms the swift symbols of the tragedies of his heart. He has the immensity of knowledge and the skill of all the workmen of his nation. A pupil of Shunsho, a lover of Sesshiu, of Tanyu, and of Korin, there was not a fiber of his immeasurable spirit that did not root itself into theirs, to divide and spread in limbs and branches through all the beings and all the plants that he encountered during his very long life—when he roamed through the woods and along the streams, when he breathed the mist of the cascades or crossed some humpbacked bridge to follow the busy crowd till it dispersed in the streets, the gardens, and the houses. He spoke the humblest and the proudest word that has come from the lips of an artist: "When I am a hundred and ten years old, everything that comes from my brush, a point or a line, will be alive." He has described every kind of labor and told the tale of all the days. He did the things that the peasants do, and the workmen, and the fishermen, and the soldiers, and the people of the fairs, and the children. With a tenderness that is now merry, now quite pure, he has set down the story of their games, their trades, and their passions. He has loved all women, their hard, pointed breasts, and their beautiful arms that flow in such swift, sure lines. He did not have time to tell us everything, though at any moment he would leave the people he was talking with—roofers laying their tiles, wood sawyers, or peddlers—to follow a bee toward a flowering hedge, over which he would discover a gardener at his work. He would lie down in the sun for his noonday siesta, but without any intention of sleeping; he would not make the slightest movement; he would hold his breath; at the slightest vibration he would raise an eyelid; he would follow the buzzing spot until it had settled on his bare arm; he would let himself be stung so as to study the monstrous eye, the sucking proboscis, the metal corselet, and the thin elastic members that the insect is forever rubbing together. When he had gotten wet to the bone while looking so carefully at the rain, he was in haste for the wind to come and dry him so that he might see the whirling flight of the dead leaves, the lanterns of the festival, and the feathers swept from wings. If he climbed a mountain and came out above its low-lying mists, it was to get a sudden sight of some peak isolated in crystal space, and, as he came down again, to discover through rifts in the fog the thatched roofs, and the rice fields, and swarms of men under their round straw hats, and junks scattered over an opaque distance. When he had seen the pale moon rise in the black sky over a world empty of forms, he waited impatiently for the red sun to discolor the air so that he might seize the appearance of the world, in the islands of gold spattered with dark touches that sow the inner seas, and the blue or red houses that appear amid the pines, and the wandering sails, and the conical volcano, now crowned with blood, now with silver or opal, now with the violet, the rose, or the lilac that one sees only in half-opened flowers. The oily oscillation of the sea, the glaciers thrusting up above the clouds, the motionless or restless tops of the woods—the whole universe stamped itself on his mind in deep harmonies; he seems to crush blue, green, and blood-red jewels in an air that is filled with watery vapor and that transmits light to things. . . He commands form like a hero, and at will he is lyrical or philosophical—by turns or simultaneously—and an epic poet and a satirical poet, living in the most frightful nightmares after leaving the most peaceful realities, or while still among them, and passing at ease from the most unhealthful invention to the noblest vision. . . And yet, through his swift art, analytical, feverish, and hurried—too anecdotal oftentimes—he is an expression of decadence. One is tempted to say that he foresees the end of Old Japan, that he wants to prepare a living encyclopaedia of it, hastening to tell everything about it in direct, immediate notes that strike like lightning, as if to leave its image—complex, multiform, disordered, and immense—to the future.

After him Yosai still addresses a discreet, melancholy, and pure farewell to the kimono-clad women who pass before the backgrounds of flowered branches —and the end has come. The revolution that throws Japan into the path of the Occident brutally extinguishes its art life. It is like a wheat field laid low by the wind of cannons. And notwithstanding, Japan has yielded nothing, abandoned nothing of her soul. She has imposed on the world her right to her life. Now she must find, in the reserves of her silence, all her passion for comprehending and all her power for expressing. The soul of a people cannot die entirely while the people is still living. Already some of her artists seem to be reviving, to be finding again the spirit of their race, broadened and renewed by the thought of the Occident. One day, certainly a great art will be born of that meeting. But the present attempts are premature. Japan has a more immediate and more positive purpose to achieve now. After attaining military strength, let her, therefore, acquire economic strength. In the rise of the energy that leads to action she will surprise the creative spirit that will spurt forth one day. Later, she will be rich. Then poor. And the cycle will begin again.

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