The Arts of Japan

Japan, a History in Art

by Bradley Smith
Simon & Schuster, 295, 288 color pls. pp., $30.00

Japanese Buddhist Prints

by Mosaku Ishida, translated by Charles S. Terry
Abrams and Kodansha International, 196, 801 illus., 32 in color pp., $35.00

The Traditional Arts of Japan

by H. Batterson Boger
Doubleday, 351, 369 figs., 26 color pls., 40 line drawings pp., $17.50

Of these three late additions to the small but already crowded field of Oriental art books, Japan, a History in Art is likely to win the widest attention and to disappoint the largest number of readers. Rather than a mere succession of aesthetic objects, its pages record human life. Prince and peasant, court lady and courtesan, priest, artisan, and loyal warrior, are immortalized in glowing colors by the artists of their own centuries—one hundred generations of them according to the jacket blurb, forty according to the Preface. This was a potentially good idea, much less hackneyed in the Asiatic world than elsewhere and particularly appropriate to Japan. The resulting book has obvious, virtues, and if its limitations had somehow been made evident to the reader it would not deserve serious criticism.

Directed indiscriminately toward both the specialist and the general reader with thirty dollars to spend, Japan, a History in Art is both pretentious and wide open to attack. With the exception of the two Introductions, particularly the highly literate and sophisticated summary by Marius Jansen of Princeton, the book is feeble as history and for the most part mediocre or worse as art. The author-photographer neither knows the facts he should nor their relative importance. The language with which Mr. Smith characterizes the Buddhist art of the Nara period—“colorful, delicately-wrought statues…sensitive and colorful figures”—hinges on adjectives that are literally true but could hardly be less useful in describing a style that was preeminently massive, nobly idealized, and virile. Furthermore, he seems to know less about Japanese Buddhism than anything else undertaken in his book. His bibliography contains only one Buddhist book, Suzuki’s Studies in Zen, which, isolated from the rest of Buddhist literature, is highly unrewarding and dangerous. What he writes of the Nara Period—“a whole culture is devoted to the veneration of the life of Gautama Buddha”—would be true enough of the early centuries in India; but in eighth-century Japan, in the midst of a proliferation of rival Buddhas, rituals, cosmologies, and varieties of magic, the earthly career of Sakyamuni was one of the least important stimulants to culture.

The book’s pretentiousness and superficiality are most apparent in the chronological tables with which each chapter begins—history on the left and art on the right. All are the same size, 12 cm. high, and so must contain approximately the same number of entries, irrespective of the period’s duration and character. Thus there must be twelve art historical events in the 235 years given to the Muromachi Period, and twelve others for the thirty-two of Momoyama. Even the choice of citations is erratic; some merit inclusion and are clearly phrased, others are mere padding, still others are so truncated for typographical reasons as to be almost useless. Names may be left unexplained, or turn up later in the text in a different version (the Dengyo Daishi and Kobo Daishi of the Heian Period table reappear later, without cross-references, as Saicho and Kukai). An entry like “c.1587 Portrait of Otomo Sorin”…

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