A GUIDE TO JAPANESE PRINTS - BASIL STEWART
CHARACTERISTICS OF JAPANESE DRAWING
IN order to understand better Japanese pictorial art, it is necessary to approach it from a different standpoint to that adopted when criticizing Western art, and to make allowances for the limitations imposed upon it by their canons of drawing and the medium of expression employed. It should be recognized as a purely local product, unique in itself, and cannot fairly be judged by the highly cultivated and, it must be admitted, highly artificial work of European artists.
Thus Japanese painting, like its parent Chinese painting, when not showing traces of European influence, is in two dimensions only, that is, it confines itself to representation in one plane, the idea of space not being indicated by strict perspective, as with us, but if shown at all, by one scene behind or above the other.
Such perspective as the Japanese artist employs is quite sufficient for the purpose of the subjects he portrays, and it is not true to say, as has been said, that he knows nothing of the effect of distance. He is far more appreciative of, and more truthful to nature in his delineation of animate creation than any Western artist, while as a colourist he is unequalled. One has only to study his drawings of flowers, birds, and insects, to be convinced of the truth of this fact.
Even when European perspective is applied to a limited extent, as is the case with the landscape designs of Hiroshige, for example, the whole drawing remains essentially Japanese.
Then again, in the representation of figures, or other objects, these are not rounded and modelled to shape, nor do they cast shadows, shadows being considered, according to the Chinese doctrine, as something purely accidental, and therefore not worth delineating.
In addition, the proportions of figures are often purely arbitrary, both to one another and to the surroundings in which they may be placed, their size being governed by their importance in the general composition.
Whether this was the deliberate intention of the artist, or whether it was a point little considered-perhaps ignored altogether-cannot be stated for certain.
A fixed convention, too, is adopted in all portraits and figure-studies, and sometimes even in small figures introduced into a landscape, whereby the face is invariably drawn half-way between full face and profile, a convention enabling the artist to portray all the topography of the features with more character than in a full face.
It also enabled him to draw his figures with less restriction as to their attitudes, or the occupations in which they could be represented.
It will further be noticed that, except in actor-portraits, where expression is everything, the features are almost expressionless, or at least immobile, due to the peculiar Japanese notion then current, whereby to betray one's feelings outwardly was considered a breach of good manners.
Another convention is that used to impart the sense of darkness at night-time by means of a black or grey sky, by introducing a moon or lanterns into the composition, a convention which well realizes the desired effect without causing a sense of incongruity, such as might be expected, while the picture remains as distinct as if the scene was in broad daylight.
The Japanese designer of colour-prints did not try to secure, by means of subtle graduations of light and darkness, the results attempted by European artists in producing a picture which should compete, in its reality and exactness to nature, with a photograph.
He understood the limitations imposed upon him by the methods and materials at his disposal; to have attempted to secure effects beyond its capacity would have been to sacrifice the charming results of which the process was capable.
On the other hand his art is suggestive, and to it the observer must bring his own share of mind and thought if he would interpret clearly the artist's meaning.
That rare faculty which conceives or forms ideas of things which exist but are not perceptible to the senses is one which Westerners acknowledge only to be possessed by poets; in Japan it is possessed by the artist, whose designs are not intended to be taken literally, but should be regarded in a metaphorical sense.
Thus these prints can never be appreciated by the dull, unimaginative mind, but on the other hand, those who can understand the principles upon which they are conceived, and who love art for its own sake, will find in them a source of the keenest delight in the realm of pure aesthetics as applied to painting, and will thereby rid his mind of much that passes for art in our Western world.
These colour-prints have not inaptly been compared to the art of the stained-glass designer. Both rely on firm outline and masses of colour for their effectiveness; in other words their charm lies in their simplicity and absence of meaningless detail.
Thus Hiroshige's snow-scenes owe their wonderful effectiveness simply to the natural whiteness of the paper, and are far snowier than any amount of paint could have made them. Their effectiveness is further enhanced by the most sparing use of colour, a blue strip of water or sky, or a few bright figures introduced into the landscape, supplying the necessary contrast.
Though these conventions were imposed upon the artist by the materials at his disposal, and by his training, the reader should not conclude that the resultant pictures are purely formal or unreal. No pictorial art has better expressed the life, habits, and customs of a people, while the scenery of Japan will live, as long as these prints exist, in the wonderful drawings of Hokusai and Hiroshige. They are indeed the pictures of a "passing world." It is their very realism, once their conventions have been mastered, which creates such an attraction for them, in addition to their pure beauty of line and colour.
Another remarkable feature of the designs of the Ukiyoye school is the extraordinary fertility of invention displayed by its artists, particularly those of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, not only in ideas for subjects, but in the arrangement of their colours and patterns.
One may look through thousands of prints in the course of forming a collection, yet it is very rare to come across any which closely resemble one another, unless one artist has deliberately copied another, as Utamaro has sometimes been copied. Even where more than one artist has taken the same subject for illustration, their respective designs will differ widely, yet convey the same lesson.
This talent of inventiveness is due, no doubt, to the Japanese love and close study of Nature, who never repeats herself.
It will be noticed also that, while their skill in drawing insects, birds, and flowers is such as to excite our admiration and the envy of artists of other nations, yet they do not seem to have mastered the drawing of animals. Their oxen are such as one never saw yoked to a plough, their horses never harnessed to a cart, nor would one expect to hear their dogs bark.
This does not of course mean that Japan produced no artists capable of correctly painting animals. Okio (1733-1795), Sosen (1746-1821), and Ganku (1749-1838), three artists of a naturalistic school of painting, of which the first-named was the founder, painted animals with extraordinary fidelity to Nature. Okio is famous for his dogs, Sosen for monkeys, and Ganku for tigers.
But speaking generally, Japanese artists' representations of animals are usually of the crudest description, and practically they confine them-selves to drawing such purely domestic creatures as the horse, the ox, and the dog. Japan itself being devoid of large wild animals, such as the lion, tiger, or leopard, such attempts as are made to depict these beasts have been taken from descriptions or rough drawings which have reached them from other countries, the opportunity of personal observation being lacking.
The Ukiyoye artists, also, did not apparently pay much heed to the drawing of hands and feet, which are generally ill-proportioned, notwithstanding the fact that, next to the face, these are the most easily observed parts of the human anatomy, while the figure itself is often drawn out to an impossible height, an exaggeration very noticeable, for example, in the later work of Utamaro. This fault, however, often appears greater than it really is, owing to the effect produced by the long flowing robes which completely hide the contour of the figure, and was doubtless intended as an expression of idealism.
In the period of the decline, from 1830 onwards, the drawing becomes very inferior, the hands and feet being little better than deformities, while effect is sought less by the outline than by complexity of design and vividness of colouring.