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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Some Japanese Prints

Title:     Some Japanese Prints
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

"Ladies Under Trees". Not Japanese ladies walking under Japanese trees--that is to say, trees peculiar to Japan, planted and fashioned according to the mode of Japan--but merely ladies walking under trees. True that the costumes are Japanese, the writing on the wall is in Japanese characters, the umbrellas and the idol on the tray are Japanese; universality is not attained by the simple device of dressing the model in a sheet and eliminating all accessories that might betray time and country; the great artist accepts the costume of his time and all the special signs of his time, and merely by the lovely exercise of genius the mere accidents of a generation become the symbolic expression of universal sensation and lasting truths. Do not ask me how this transformation is effected; it is the secret of every great artist, a secret which he exercises unconsciously, and which no critic has explained.

Looking at this yard of coloured print, I ask myself how it is that ever since art began no such admirable result has been obtained with means so slight. A few outlines drawn with pen and ink or pencil, and the interspaces filled in with two flat tints-a dark green, and a grey verging on mauve.

The drawing of the figures is marvellously beautiful. But why is it beautiful? Is it because of the individual character represented in the faces? The faces are expressed by means of a formula, and are as like one another as a row of eggs. Are the proportions of the figure correctly measured, and are the anatomies well understood? The figures are in the usual proportions so far as the number of heads is concerned: they are all from six and a half to seven heads high; but no motion of limbs happens under the draperies, and the hands and feet, like the faces, are expressed by a set of arbitrary conventions. It is not even easy to determine whether the posture of the woman on the right is intended for sitting or kneeling. She holds a tray, on which is an idol, and to provide sufficient balance for the composition the artist has placed a yellow umbrella in the idol's hand. Examine this design from end to end, and nowhere will you find any desire to imitate nature. With a line Utamaro expresses all that he deems it necessary to express of a face's contour. Three or four conventional markings stand for eyes, mouth, and ears; no desire to convey the illusion of a rounded surface disturbed his mind for a moment; the intention of the Japanese artists was merely to decorate a surface with line and colour. It was no part of their scheme to compete with nature, so it could not occur to them to cover one side of a face with shadow. The Japanese artists never thought to deceive; the art of deception they left to their conjurers. The Japanese artist thought of harmony, not of accuracy of line, and of harmony, not of truth of colour; it was therefore impossible for him to entertain the idea of shading his drawings, and had some one whispered the idea to him he would have answered: "The frame will always tell people that they are not looking at nature. You would have it all heavy and black, but I want something light, and bright, and full of beauty. See these lines, are they not in themselves beautiful? are they not sharp, clear, and flowing, according to the necessity of the composition? Are not the grey and the dark green sufficiently contrasted? do they not bring to your eyes a sense of repose and unity? Look at the embroideries on the dresses, are they not delicate? do not the star-flowers come in the right place? is not the yellow in harmony with the grey and the green? And the blossoms on the trees, are they not touched in with the lightness of hand and delicacy of tone that you desire? Step back and see if the spots of colour and the effects of line become confused, or if they still hold their places from a distance as well as close...."

Ladies under trees, by Utamaro! That grey-green design alternated with pale yellow corresponds more nearly to a sonata by Mozart than to anything else; both are fine decorations, musical and pictorial decorations, expressing nothing more definite than that sense of beauty which haunts the world. The fields give flowers, and the hands of man works of art.

Then this art is wholly irresponsible--it grows, obeying no rules, even as the flowers?

In obedience to the laws of some irregular metre so delicate and subtle that its structure escapes our analysis, the flowers bloom in faultless, flawless, and ever-varying variety. We can only say these are beautiful because they are beautiful....

That is begging the question.

He who attempts to go to the root of things always finds himself begging the question in the end....

But you have to admit that a drawing that does not correspond to the object which the artist has set himself to copy cannot be well drawn.

That idea is the blight that has fallen on European art. The goodness or the badness of a drawing exists independently of the thing copied. We say--speaking of a branch, of a cloud, of a rock, of a flower, of a leaf--how beautifully drawn! Some clouds and some leaves are better drawn than others, not on account of complexity or simplicity of form, but because they interpret an innate sense of harmony inherent in us. And this natural drawing, which exists sometimes irrespective of anatomies and proportions, is always Utamaro's.

I do not know how long I stood examining this beautiful drawing, studying the grey and the green tint, admiring the yellow flowers on the dresses, wondering at the genius that placed the yellow umbrella in the idol's hand, the black masses of hair above the faces, so charmingly decorated with great yellow hair-pins. I watched the beauty of the trees, and was moved by the placing of the trees in the composition, and I delighted in the delicate blossoms. I was enchanted by all this bright and gracious paganism which Western civilisation has already defaced, and in a few years will have wholly destroyed.

I might describe more prints, and the pleasure they have given me; I might pile epithet upon epithet; I might say that the colour was as deep and as delicate as flower-bloom, and every outline spontaneous, and exquisite to the point of reminding me of the hopbine and ferns. It would be well to say these things; the praise would be appropriate to the occasion; but rather am I minded to call the reader's attention to what seems to me to be an essential difference between the East and the West.

Michael Angelo and Velasquez, however huge their strength in portraiture and decoration, however sublime Veronese and Tintoretto in magnificent display of colour, we must perforce admit to Oriental art a refinement of thought and a delicacy of handicraft--the outcome of the original thought--which never was attained by Italy, and which so transcends our grosser sense that it must for ever remain only half perceived and understood by us.

[The end]
George Moore's essay: Some Japanese Prints