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” is useless unless one hunts through the descriptions of plates at the end of the book and finds the pages reference. The picture is placed two pages before the opening of the chapter to which it chronologically belongs, and its caption there refers merely to an unnamed “lord of Bungo.”
The artistic side suffers from a too narrow definition of history as a mere series of events—a definition which leaves virtually no place for states of mind, and so must omit or minimize much that was of prime importance in Japanese history: the cult of the emperor, the mysteries of esoteric Buddhism, love of Nature, the Zen experience, even the tea ceremony. None of these can be readily illustrated in terms of the book’s premise—that a picture must show figures doing something. As a result, history is further deformed. The Muromachi Period, for example, is covered by references to the peasant’s way of life, the samurai sword, and the arrival of European ships, with only one plate—a pair of No masks—to stand for the Zen-centered world of the Ashikaga regents in Kyöto.
A more troublesome aesthetic disadvantage springs from the fact that Japanese interest in human activities has been expressed over the centuries by figure arts of highly uneven quality, superb in some periods but in others perfunctory, or mannered, or harshly over-dramatized. Both the visual attractiveness of the book and its value as an adjunct to art history would have been enhanced by a greater concentration on the best periods, by a much more comprehensive use of the great late Heian and early Kamakura picture-scrolls, of the genre-painting masterpieces of the seventeenth-century, and of the major Ukioye print-makers. The earliest of these sources, in particular, would have yielded to such exploration not only pictures of very high quality but also expertly rendered views of the life of their time in directions now almost untouched. With such a choice, there would have been a better pretext for the subtitle written in Japanese calligraphy inside the front cover: Bi to Nihon-jin no rekishi—“Beauty and the History of the Japanese.” Instead one meets in the third quarter of the book a long series of mediocre works by Kano or Tosa hacks; and when the last quarter is reached, with the final stage of Westernization from 1853 on, the art sinks to the level of Currier and Ives. The color printing is often poor—inaccurate registration has sometimes produced a disagreeable blurring; details have frequently been enlarged beyond their proper dimensions, with a consquent coarsening. The most flagrant instance, a close-up of the birth of the Buddha from his mother’s sleeve, is so over-magnified that the silk weave looks like the roughest watercolor paper.
The caption to another scene from the Buddha’s life furnishes what is probably the book’s most deplorable instance of inadequate preparation. The episode is one of the familiar legendary additions to the original biography. In the course of an early journey the Buddha is said to have sought a night’s lodging from a group of Brahman hermits. The only available shelter was a hut in which the Brahmans performed their worship of fire, and which at the same time was the lair of a deadly fireserpent. In spite of earnest warnings the Buddha insisted on entering alone. In due course he was attacked by the fire-breathing serpent and retaliated with the same weapon; exteriorizing his spiritual power in the form of flames that surrounded his body. Watching from the outside, the horrified hermits assumed that the chapel was on fire and their guest cooked to a crisp; but when he emerged unharmed they found the shelter intact and the terrified monster, shrunk to the size of a lizard, hiding for safety inside the Buddha’s alms-bowl. Mr. Smith’s comment on the picture, worded so as to fit exactly into two lines without hyphenization, runs:
Amidst flames an incarnation of spiritual Buddha shows that the physical body can be sacrificed for common good.
Ishida’s Japanese Buddhist Prints is clearly directed toward adults with a developed interest in art, or Buddhism, or Japanese culture, it is in fact a reprint, with an English text, of the opening volume of a series planned to cover the whole development of picture-printing in Japan. The translation by Charles Terry is excellent; the author and his collaborators are highly expert; the illustrations could hardly be better. The subject matter has been liberally interpreted so as to include not only specifically Buddhist works—icons, frontispieces to the scriptures, and charms that multiply a single symbol—but also printed decorative patterns and, most surprising of all, the use of printed under-drawing to facilitate fun-painting by court amateurs. If the book suggests to me adjectives like interesting and meritorious rather than anything warmer, it is because most of the material, being Buddhist, represents an art well past its prime. From the thirteenth century on, Buddhist painting, except in the Zen sect, became increasingly stereotyped and superficial; after the mid-fourteenth it declined rapidly in technique as well. Buddhist prints, drawn mainly from that period, show the same qualities in higher degree. There were no Japanese equivalents of Dürer and Schongauer, nor even any Buddhist counterparts to the later secular masters of Ukioye. The most skillfully executed printed icon is only a slightly stiffened version of a painted original which can hardly be called anything but mediocre when compared to the glowing masterpieces of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It may well be that the book was chosen as a publishing venture in this country just because the crudity and repetitiousness of many of its illustrations are congenial to modern taste. Many in fact suggest the popular contemporary print-maker Shijo Munakata, possibly because one side of his highly eclectic style is based on just such raw materials.
Mr. Boger, finally, has put together with obvious care and devotion an almost overwhelming wealth of facts about the achievements of Japanese artists and craftsmen in every direction between architecture and doll-making for the interested amateur. If Mr. Smith’s History suggests background material at the junior high school level. The Traditional Arts of Japan is like a collection of articles from the Encyclopedia Britannica at its best. The writing is sober and accurate, and most useful where the subject is a relatively restricted one like Metalwork. The incomparably more complex theme of Painting has required too much cutting and trimming to be successful.
April 8, 1965