An Introduction to the Arts of Japan


Familiarity with Japanese art in the west generally begins and ends with colourprints. During the last seventy-five years they have won a place in our own artistic heritage. The contribution of the colour-print to late 19th century European painting has been universally recognized. In this respect, and unfortunately only in this respect, Japanese art is better known in the West than even Chinese art. The general art-loving public may also have seen a Japanese ivory carving, a late (and generally bad) piece of export porcelain or a charming lacquer object. Little else has reached Europe.

Apart from a few scholars like Langdon Warner, eminent critics have not concerned themselves with the whole range of Japanese art in the last thirty years. Why? There are two main reasons--a flood of Chinese art and the political unpopularity of Japan which culminated in the recent war. It is sad that the appreciation of an art should be influenced by political considerations but unfortunately this happens.

The neglect of Japanese art is the more surprising when one remembers that 20th century appreciation of the arts of Asia in general began with those of Japan. It is unfortunate that the Japanese art introduced to Europe at that time belonged to her most decorative period. The first exhibition of Japanese art in London was held in 1854. It aroused little interest. Yet, by the 1880's, through appreciation of the colour print, Japanese art was the rage of Europe. Then some years later, in this century, a flood of fine Chinese art overwhelmed the West. Many Westerners were shocked to find that what they had eulogized in Japanese art had been influenced by and even directly inspired by earlier, though not necessarily finer, Chinese models. This produced a reaction born of disillusion in which all of Japan's artistic achievements were decried as pale reflections of earlier Chinese masterpieces. It appeared that Japan's art was no exception to the rule-- which in our time had become a popular conception--that all Japanese achievements were imitations. Western critics, in discovering and exploring the monumental art of China, began to ignore the very real and often unique contributions of Japanese art. Japan was not even given its due as the world's greatest storehouse of Chinese art, for indeed no complete understanding of Chinese art can be reached without a study both of the Chinese treasures so lovingly preserved in Japan and of Japanese art itself.

The aim of this book, therefore, is to try to re-assess Japanese art in the light of our vastly expanded knowledge of all the arts of the East.

Laurence Binyon in 1923 said that the Japanese "have added new elements, and in some particular respects have surpassed the older nation, though in other respects they have never attained the same level." Is this a fair summing up? No answer to the question can be provided without a consideration of the ceramics, textiles, metal work, and lacquer of Japan as well as its painting and sculpture. In the same way no book on Chinese art . . .

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • New York
Publication year:
  • 1958


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