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Chats on Japanese Prints

A. Davison Ficke

Bring forth, my friend, these faded sheets
Whose charm our laboured utterance flies.
Perhaps our later search repeats
The groping of those scholars' eyes

Who, ere the dawned Renaissant day,
With dusked sight and doubtful hand,
Bent o'er the pages of some grey
Greek text they could not understand

Drawn by the sense that there concealed
Lay key to spacious realms unknown;
Held by the need that be revealed
Forgotten worlds to light their own.





The general nature of Japanese prints - Growth of interest in them - The technique of their production - Their aesthetic characteristics.


That sublimated pleasure which is the seal of all the arts reaches its purest condition when evoked by a work in which the aesthetic quality is not too closely mingled with the every-day human. Poetry, because of its close human ties, is to a certain extent a corrupt art; its medium is that base speech which we use for communicating information, and few are the readers whose minds can absolve words from the work-a-day obligation of conveying, first of all, mere tidings. Music, on the other hand, employing a medium wholly sacred to its own uses, starts with no such handicap; its succession of notes awakens in the listener no expectation of an eventual body of facts to carry home. Between the two extremes lie the graphic arts. These are perhaps most fortunate when they deal with material not familiar to the spectator, for it is then that he most readily accepts them as designs and harmonies, without looking to them for a literal record of things only too well known to him.

The graphic art of an alien race has therefore an initial strength of purely aesthetic appeal that a native art often lacks. It moves free from the demands with which unconsciously we approach the art of our own people. It stands as an undiscovered world, of which nothing can logically be expected. The spectator who turns to it at all must come prepared to take it on its own terms. If it allures him, it will do so by virtue of those qualities of harmony, rhythm, and vision which in these strange surroundings are more perceptible to him than in the art of his own race, where so many adventitious associations operate to distract him. Like a man whom Mayfair bewilders with its fashions, he may find that fundamental verity, that humanity which he seeks only among the Gipsy beggars.

Perhaps this theory best explains the impulse that has of late led many lovers of beauty to turn to the arts of Persia, China, and Japan for their keenest pleasure. Here, in unfamiliar environment, the fundamental powers of design stand forth free. Here the beautiful is discoverable for its own sake, liberated from the oppression of utility.

Toward Japan this impulse has in our own day been strongly directed. The handicrafts of the Japanese people have charmed the Western world, possibly to an undue extent. On the other hand, the great classical schools of Japanese painting have unfortunately been difficult of access. But between the two, half craft and half art, lies the Japanese colour-print - a finer product than mere dexterous artizan work, and more accessible than the paintings of the classic masters. In the print many a Western mind has found its clearest intimation of the universal principles of beauty.

During a period of a little more than a hundred years, roughly delimited by 1742 and 1858, there were produced in Japan large numbers of wood-engravings, printed in colours; these have of late come to occupy an almost unique place in the esteem of European art-lovers. So great is the importance now attached to these works that the Japanese public of earlier days, for whose delectation they were designed, would be astounded could they witness it. Just as obscure Greek potters moulded for common use vases that are to-day treasured in the museums as paradigms of beauty, so the coloured broadsheets, whose immediate purpose was to give pleasure to the crowds of the Japanese capital, have taken in the course of years a distinguished rank among the beautiful things of all time.

The day is passing when the love of these sheets can be looked upon as the badge of a cult, the secret delight of far-searching worshippers of the strange and exotic. Even did the collector desire, he could not long hide this light under a bushel; and the Japanese print is swiftly becoming a general treasure. This is proper and natural. An understanding of the origin of this form of art makes its present popularity in Europe seem like the felicitous rounding of a circle begun on the other side of the world.

It was in Yedo, the teeming capital of Japan, that the art of the colour-print flourished; and the patron sought by the artists was primarily the common man. No art more purely national or more definitely popular and exoterical in its inception has ever existed. The subjects of the prints are alone enough to make this fact evident. In them appear the forms and faces of the popular actors in their admired roles, fashionable courtesans decked in all the splendour of their unhappy but far-famed days and nights, legendary heroes, dancers, wrestlers, and popular entertainers. In the matter of landscape, the scenes shown are the festival-crowded temples of Yedo, the sunlit tea-gardens and gay midnight boating-parties of the Sumida River, the great highroads of national travel, the famous spots of popular recreation. Only rarely are there episodes from aristocratic life; and the occasional occurrence of these has precisely the significance of a photograph of a royal house-party shown in a penny paper. The Yoshiwara, as the licensed quarter of Yedo is called, appears in these prints more often than do the garden-parties of noble ladies; the vulgar theatre is shown, but not the classic No drama of the aristocracy; it is a Japanese Montmartre, not a Japanese Faubourg St. Germain, that is revealed. The artist's sense of beauty subdues these riotous pleasures of the populace to the severe demands of a beautiful pattern; but it is a whimsical vulgar world, a world of the people, a world of passing gaiety, that he portrays.

The purposes of these pictures were various. "To some extent," says Mr. Frederick W. Gookin, "they were used as advertisements. Incidentally they served as fashion plates. Some were regularly published and sold in shops. Others were designed expressly upon orders from patrons, to whom the entire edition, sometimes a very small one, was delivered. The number struck from any block or set of blocks varied widely. Of the more popular prints many editions were printed, each one, as might be expected, inferior to those that preceded it . . . Most of the prints were sold at the time of publication for a few sen. The finer ones brought relatively higher prices, and such prints as the great triptychs and still larger compositions by Kiyonaga, Yeishi, Toyokuni, Utamaro, and other leading artists could never have been very cheap. In general, however, the price was small, and they were regarded as ephemeral things. Many were used to ornament the small screens that served to protect kitchen fires from the wind, and in this use were inevitably soiled and browned by smoke. Others, mounted upon the sliding partitions of the houses, perished in the fires by which the Japanese cities have been devastated; or, if in houses that chanced safely to run the gauntlet of fires, typhoons, cloudbursts, and other mishaps, their colours faded, and their surfaces were rubbed until little more than dim outlines were left."

The plebeian origin of the prints explains why the cultivated Japanese have not, as a rule, looked upon them with much enthusiasm. Only now, when the greatest print treasures have gone out of Japan, are a few Japanese collectors beginning to buy back at high prices works which they allowed to leave the country for a song. The admiration of Europe and America has awakened them to a realization of the distinction of the prints, in spite of the undistinguished nature of their subjects; and the day will come when the Japanese themselves will be the most formidable bidders at the sales of great Western collections.

The interest of Western collectors in Japanese prints is of comparatively recent origin. As late as 1861 it was possible for a writer on Japan to regard them with blank indifference. There is a rare little book by Captain Sherard Osborne, printed in that year in London, called "Japanese Fragments." It contains six hand-coloured reproductions of prints and a number of uncoloured cuts, all from prints which Captain Osborne had purchased in Japan. In the following words he makes reference to Hiroshige, who is now generally ranked as one of the supreme landscape artists of all time: "Even the humble artists of that land have become votaries of the beautiful, and in such efforts as the one annexed strive to do justice to the scenery. Their appreciation of the picturesque is far in advance, good souls, of their power of pencil, but our embryo Turner (i.e. Hiroshige) has striven hard . . ." etc. In 1861, perhaps, few people would have believed it possible that to-day many serious judges might question whether any product of European art has ever matched the designs of these "humble artists."

The earliest of European collectors was, according to Mr. Edward F. Strange, a certain M. Isaac Titsingh, who died in Paris in 1812. M. Titsingh had for fourteen years served the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki; and among his effects were 'nine engravings printed in colours.' Doubtless he had acquired them merely as curiosities, without any perception of their artistic importance. Mr. Strange notes that four prints were reproduced in Oliphant's "Account of the Mission of Lord Elgin to China and Japan" (1859); and, as we have seen, Osborne devoted some desultory attention to prints in 1861. These are, perhaps, the chief evidences of early European interest.

Subsequently such events as the International Exhibition in London, 1862, the Paris Exposition of 1867 and that of 1878, and the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876, served to bring a few prints to the notice of Western amateurs. Particularly in Paris was intense interest in them aroused among painters and literary men. From 1889 to 1891, S. Bing was bringing out in Paris his magazine Le Japon Artistique, whose pages contain many fine reproductions of notable prints. In 1891, Edmond de Goncourt issued his volume on Utamaro. Other books followed rapidly. In 1895, Professor Anderson issued his small but important monograph on "Japanese Wood Engraving." In 1896, Fenollosa's epoch-making catalogue, "Masters of Ukioye," was published in New York, establishing for the first time the foundations of all our present knowledge of this field, and pronouncing judgments from which the consensus of later opinion has, in the main, never departed. The same year brought forth de Goncourt's "Hokusai." Mr. Strange's "Japanese Colour Prints" appeared in 1897. In the same year, Von Seidlitz issued his "Geschichte des japanischen Farbenholzschnittes" (published in England as "A History of Japanese Colour Prints" in 1900), which remains to-day the most comprehensive and accurate single treatise on the subject.

Of recent years, the growth of interest and the increase of books has been rapid. Eager collectors have scoured the world to bring to light new masterpieces; Japan has been ransacked so thoroughly that the would-be purchaser can perhaps more wisely go to London or Paris or New York than to Tokyo or Kyoto in his search for prizes; and the places of honour accorded these sheets in the portfolios of discriminating collectors and great museums leaves no doubt as to the esteem with which they are regarded. Values have been multiplied by tens and hundreds, so that to-day the supreme rarities among prints are beyond the reach of the ordinary purchaser.

All this is due neither to accident nor to any strange freak of whimsical tastes. It has come about because the prints are in fact artistic treasures. Commonplace and trivial as the subjects of most of them are, they rise by virtue of the quality of their execution to a very high point - masterpieces of composition, triumphs of colour, monuments of the power of human genius to impose its sense of rhythm, form, and harmony on the appearances of the seen world.

But as is true in the case of any art, the content of the colour-prints is not to be grasped at a first glance by the casual passer-by. Familiarity with the aims selected, the conventions employed, and the achievements possible is necessary before the specific charm of these works makes itself manifest. It is the experience of most print-lovers that, starting with perhaps a mere casual liking for a certain landscape design, they progress gradually, in the course of years, to an unmeasured delight in the whole body of prints, and eventually find in them a unique source of repose and exaltation.

There are certain peculiarities, common not only to prints but to Japanese art as a whole, that require a special effort of the Western mind before they become acceptable. The first and most vital of these is the absence of realism. "Throughout the course of Asian painting," writes Mr. Laurence Binyon, "the idea that art is the imitation of Nature is unknown, or known only as a despised and fugitive heresy . . . A Chinese critic of the sixth century, who was also an artist, published a theory of aesthetic principles which became a classic and received universal acceptance, expressing as it did the deeply rooted instincts of the race. In this theory, it is rhythm that holds the paramount place; not, be it observed, imitation of Nature, or fidelity to Nature, which the general instinct of the Western races makes the root-concern of art. In this theory every work of art is thought of as an incarnation of the genius of rhythm manifesting the living spirit of things with a clearer beauty and intenser power than the gross impediments of complex matter allow to be transmitted to our senses in the visible world around us. A picture is conceived as a sort of apparition from a more real world of essential life."

It will, therefore, be vain to expect in Japanese designs any production that will astonish the spectator by its life-likeness, it fidelity to an actual scene. Eastern art has never attempted to compete with the work of photography. Its function is the function which the European public grants to poets but not always to painters - the seeking out of subtle and invisible relations in things, the perception of harmonies and rhythms not heard by the common ear, the interpretation of life in terms of a finer and more beautiful order than practical life has ever known.

All Asian art has recognized for centuries the fact that vision and imagination are the faculties by which the painter as well as the poet must grapple with reality. In the words of Mr. Binyon once more - "It is always the essential character and genius of the element that is sought for and insisted on: the weight and mass of water falling, the sinuous, swift curves of a stream evading obstacles in its way, the burst of foam against a rock, the toppling crest of a slowly arching billow; and all in a rhythm of pure lines. But the same principles, the same treatment, are applied to other subjects. If it be a hermit sage in his mountain retreat, the artist's efforts will be concentrated on the expression, not only in the sage's features, but in his whole form, of the rapt intensity of contemplation; toward this effect every line of drapery and of surrounding rock or tree will conspire, by force of repetition or of contrast If it be a warrior in action, the artist will ensure that we feel the tension of nerve, the heat of blood in the muscles, the watchfulness of the eye, the fury of determination. That birds shall be seen to be, above all things, winged creatures rejoicing in their flight; that flowers shall be, above all things, sensitive blossoms unfolding on pliant, up-growing stems; that the tiger shall be an embodiment of force, boundless in capacity for spring and fury - this is the ceaseless aim of these artists, from which no splendour of colour, no richness of texture, no accident of shape diverts them. The more to concentrate on this seizure of the inherent life in what they draw, they will obliterate or ignore at will half or all of the surrounding objects with which the Western painter feels bound to fill his background. By isolation and the mere use of empty space they will give to a clump of narcissus by a rock, or a solitary quail, or a mallow plant quivering in the wind, a sense of grandeur and a hint of the infinity of life."

This almost symbolic quality is the chief element of the pleasure to be derived from Japanese art. Japanese designs are metaphors; they depict not any object, but remote and greater powers to which the object is related. Often the artist produces his effect by the exaggeration of certain aspects, or by expressing particular qualities in the terms of some kindred thing. If his subject happens to be an actor in some great and tragic role, he will not hesitate to prolong the lines of the drapery unconscionably, to give the effect of solemn dignity, slow movement, and monumental isolation. Westerners may smile at the distortion of such a figure; but they must acknowledge that an atmosphere of lofty and special destiny surrounds the form, precisely because the artist has dared to use these devices. The Japanese artist will draw a woman as if she were a lily, a man as if he were a tempest, a tree as if it were a writhing snake, a mountain as if it were a towering giant. This is the very essence of poetical imagination; and the result of it is to endow a picture with obscure suggestions and overtones of infinite power. Symbols of existence beyond themselves, these designs are charged with an almost mystical command upon the emotions of the spectator. Western art has employed such a method comparatively little in painting. In poetry it appears frequently. The poet, when he wishes to convey the impression of a beautiful woman, does not set out her features and her stature and all the details of her aspect. He tries to awaken some realization of her by a bold and fantastic leap of the imagination straight to the heart of the matter - he makes her a perfume, a light, a music, a memory of goddesses.

The prosaic mind will never greatly care for work produced in accordance with this principle; the conventions will seem distortions, the imaginative generalizations will seem inaccuracies, and the transcending of reality to shape a more universal and significant statement will appear nothing more than ineptitude in grappling with fact. But to the poetical mind, all these things will come with a unique and irresistible fascination; and far more delightful than the novelty and interest of the scenes represented will be the manner of their representation. As one enters into the spirit of these paintings and prints, it is as if one saw the world from a new angle, or had acquired the power to assemble into new intellectual combinations those sensory impressions which our own art has taught us to combine in a manner now grown a little dull and stereotyped.

Japanese art has certain conventions that are highly individual. Some of these may trouble and repel the Western eye. For example, the Japanese artist draws his figures without shadows, and makes no attempt to represent the play of light and shade over them. The scene is painted as if in a clear, cold vacuum, where the diffusion of illumination is almost perfectly uniform. In the Japanese view, a shadow is something ephemeral and transitory - a mere accident and illusion, and as such unworthy of perpetuation in art. The pattern of the object itself, freed from this momentary tyranny, should be the sole theme of the artist. Similarly, high-lights or chiaroscuro are not attempted; nor is modelling by means of these employed. A universal flatness is the result - a result deliberately aimed at.

Most of the European ideas of perspective are ignored in these works. In accordance with the ancient Chinese canon - based upon an imaginative and not upon a visual perception - the linear perspective of the Japanese exactly reverses that of Western painting. In their system, parallel lines converge as they approach the spectator. Different planes of distance may be suggested merely by placing the remote plane higher up in the picture; and sometimes no attempt is made to diminish the size of the figures in the upper plane. These devices may seem very naive to the European. But in aerial perspective - the power to give to objects a colouring appropriate to their relative distance from the eye - the Japanese indisputably employ the utmost subtlety. When these artists differ from European custom, it is not because of ignorance, but because their way seems to them the more expressive - the better adapted to the creation of those peculiar impressions of beauty which are their aim. The longer one examines the products of these alien theories of drawing, the less certain one is likely to be of the superiority of our more scientific Western conventions.

In all Japanese art, the element of pure brushwork is of greater importance than in the art of Europe. The people, trained from childhood in the handling of the brush as a pencil for the drawing of the complex forms of written characters, acquire a facility and accuracy unknown in other lands. Fine calligraphy is esteemed an art in itself. And the Japanese painter, whose life is devoted to further exercises with the brush, may achieve a unique degree of skill. His power to sweep, guide, and modulate the width and intensity of his line is developed into a sixth sense. He can make his brush-stroke smooth-flowing as a violin-note, or splintered as a broken branch, or wavering like the flow of a river, or coldly hard and sharp as flint; sometimes it has the edge of a knife; at other times it dies away into imperceptible gradations; its blacks are dazzling in their intensity, its greys are like veils of mist. The mystery of the expression of pure personality in art is nowhere more strikingly exemplified than here. To the accustomed eye the line-work of the Japanese artist is vibrant with intimate connection between hand and spirit. This command of the brush, so perfect that the passion of the artist's soul flows out through it, is one of the vital characteristics of Japanese painting.


The colour-print is one small and peculiar division of the larger field of Japanese pictorial design; besides being subject to the general laws of Japanese esthetics, it is distinguished by certain special characteristics that grow out of the nature of the technique employed. Of this technique, Mr. F. W. Gookin gives an illuminating exposition: "None but the most primitive methods - or what from our point of view may seem such - were employed. The most wonderful among all the prints is but a 'rubbing' or impression taken by hand from wood blocks. The artist having drawn the design with the point of a brush in outline upon thin paper, it was handed over to the engraver, who began his part of the work by pasting the design face downward upon a flat block of wood, usually cherry, sawn plank-wise as in the case of the blocks used by European wood-engravers in the time of Durer. The paper was then carefully scraped at the back until the design showed through distinctly in every part. Next, the wood was carefully cut away, leaving the lines in relief, care being taken to preserve faithfully every feature of the brush strokes with which the drawing was executed. A number of impressions were then taken in Chinese ink from this 'key block' and handed to the artist to fill in with colour. This ingenious plan, which is manifestly an outgrowth of the early custom of colouring the inkprints (sumi-e) by hand, and which perhaps would never have been thought of had not the colour itself been an afterthought, enabled the artist to try many experiments in colour arrangement with a minimum amount of labour. The colour scheme and ornamentation of the surfaces having been determined, the engraver made as many subsidiary blocks as were required, the parts meant to take the colour being left raised and the rest cut away. Accurate register was secured by the simplest of devices. A right-angled mark engraved at the lower right-hand corner of the original block, and a straight mark in exact line with its lower arm at the left, were repeated upon each subsequent block, and in printing, the sheets were laid down so that their lower and right-hand edges corresponded with the marks so made. The defective register which may be observed in many prints was caused by unequal shrinking or swelling of the blocks. In consequence of this, late impressions are often inferior to the early ones, even though printed with the same care, and from blocks that had worn very little. The alignment will usually be found to be exact upon one side of the print, but to get further out of register as the other side is approached.

"The printing was done on moist paper with Chinese ink and colour applied to the blocks with flat brushes. A little rice paste was usually mixed with the pigments to keep them from running, and to increase their brightness. Sometimes dry rice flour was dusted over the blocks after they were charged.[Ed. note] To this method of charging the blocks much of the beauty of the result may be attributed. The colour could be modified, graded, or changed at will, the blocks covered entirely or partially. Hard, mechanical accuracy was avoided. Impressions differed even when the printer's aim was uniformity. Sometimes in inking the 'key block,' which was usually the last one impressed [Ed. note], some of the lines would fail to receive the pigment, or would be overcharged. This was especially liable to happen when the blocks were worn and the edges of the lines became rounded. A little more or a little less pigment sometimes made a decided difference in the tone of the print, and, it may be noted, has not infrequently determined the nature and extent of the discoloration wrought by time.

"In printing, a sheet of paper was laid upon the block and the printer rubbed off the impression, using for the purpose a kind of pad called a baren. This was applied to the back of the paper and manipulated with a circular movement of the hand. By varying the degree of pressure the colour could be forced deep into the paper, or left upon the outer fibres only, so that the whiteness of those below the surface would shine through, giving the peculiar effect of light which is seen at its best in some of the surimono (prints designed for distribution at New Year's or other particular occasion) by Hokusai. Uninked blocks were used for embossing portions of the designs. The skill of the printer was a large factor in producing the best results. Even the brilliancy of the colour resulted largely from his manipulations of the pigments and various little tricks in their application. The first impressions were not the best, some forty or fifty having to be pulled before the blocks would take the colour properly. Many kinds of paper were used. For the best of the old prints it was thick, spongy in texture, and of an almost ivory tone. The finest specimens were printed under the direct personal supervision of the artists who designed them. Every detail was looked after with the utmost care. No pains were spared in mixing the tints, in charging the blocks, in laying on the paper so as to secure perfect register, in regulating the pressure so as to get the best possible impressions. Experiments were often tried by varying the colour schemes. Prints of important series, as for example Hokusai's famous 'Thirty-six Views of Fuji,' are met with in widely divergent colourings."

The results produced by this technique, as it was employed in the great period of the art, have no parallel. When Durer, in the fifteenth century, brought wood and steel engraving to such brilliant perfection, he determined the future history of European engraving, fixing the line of greatest development in the region of black-and-white, where, except for sporadic excursions of debatable merit, it has continued ever since. Fortunately, in Japan, colouring and line did not part company, but in combination progressed toward a unique triumph.

A print produced by this technique is simply a sheet of paper upon which are impressed, by means of hand-charged wood blocks, a series of patches of colour that combine into a design. In general, each of these patches is flat and unshaded; its edges are sharp, definite, bounded by a line as distinct as the line of the lead used in stained glass. In the print, as in the stained-glass window, only major lines and important colour-masses can be shown; thus elimination of the incidental and selection of what is vital are imperatively demanded of the designer. Salient curves and expressive outlines are the essential requisite. One reason why these prints seem classic is that they are purged of the thousand unimportant and meaningless gradations of tone that are easy to use in a painting and impossible here. Singular purity and loftiness of effect is the result, together with a certain abstract aloofness from reality that has a high aesthetic value.

Into the drawing of these few lines, and into the construction of these few flat colour-spaces, went all the artist's sense of proportion and rhythm, grace and dignity, movement and tone. On the flat wall of his printed sheet he devised a pattern that should weave, out of figures and objects, a decorative design upon whose harmonious mosaic the eye would willingly linger. There he played his music to allure and beguile and absorb the spectator.

Like his fellow-painters of all Asia, the print designer did not feel that literal accuracy greatly concerned him. If the figures moved with a stately godlike grace in rhythmic procession, what matter if they were taller or shorter than real beings? If their faces were expressive of a noble calm or a sublime fury, why ask for a detailed mirroring of a real face? If the landscape was beautiful, was it important that the real scene could never look exactly thus?

As an example of the curious conventions that dominate this art, the observer will note the way in which heads are drawn by these artists. With very rare exceptions, the angle from which all the heads are seen is the same. In the print, as in the Egyptian wall-carvings, the head is held in a poise dictated by a traditional formula. The face is turned half-way between profile and full-face; the nose approaches but does not intersect the line of the cheek; the outline of the nose is shown, and also the broad sweep of the brow, while at the same time both eyes are visible. For two centuries, with only occasional variations, this formula for drawing the face persisted; and in the submission to this wisely chosen type - admirably adapted as it was to exhibit most expressively the whole map of the features - is revealed something of that willingness to accept discipline, style, and conventionalization which in these artists went side by side with so much originality.

A magic world - a pure creation of the imagination in its search for beauty! This convention in the drawing of the faces has much to do with the unreal quality we find there. Something in the repetition and uniformity of the heads produces a delicate visionary impression, a trance-like mood - as does the rhythm of poetry or music. Under its spell the emotion of the spectator comes forth free from its daily bonds and preoccupations, in the liberation that only art can give.

To these regions of pure aesthetic experience the amateur turns with delight - not only as an escape from practical life, but as an escape from much that is known to the Western world as art. The childish mind loves pictures that tell a story; but the more sophisticated intelligence goes to a work of art for those elements which lie far beyond the region of episodic narration - elements that are allied to the principles of geometry, the laws of motion, the excursions of pure music, the visions of religious faith. Though these manifestations are difficult to correlate, they all arise from one fountainhead; and the best of the Japanese prints lie very close to the source of the stream.


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