The Art and Architecture of Japan

The Art and Architecture of Japan

The Art and Architecture of Japan

The Art and Architecture of Japan

Excerpt

The greatness of the early scholars of oriental art lay in their ability to see the art of Asia as constituting a body of traditions which had many points in common and many correlating influences; but that same breadth of view tended to emphasize points of similarity and dependence and to minimize national differences. The debt of Japan to the culture of China has often been stated in such a manner that the indigenous character of the art of the Island Empire has been depreciated or underestimated.

Like so many ancient arts, Japanese painting has remained essentially linear with colour applied in flat masses. In the wide potentialities of hair brush and Chinese ink it indubitably derived from the art of China. And, as in China, art avoided the rendering of forms in shadow or sculpturesque depth. Even sculpture was conceived primarily in terms of line.

The art of Japan is ordinarily one of concrete presentation dealing with visual facts rather than with abstractions, idealizations, or fanciful renderings, except under strong foreign influence. In the native Shintō religion the deities are regarded as spirits and so they remain, too mysterious to portray. The Shintō point of view is clearly to be recognized in the three imperial regalia--mirror, sword, and jewel--which are strictly symbols and not representations of divine power. A cultural antipathy to plastic or graphic expression has prevented the Shintō shrines from becoming great patrons of the arts. The absence of pictorial elements deriving from native mythology has closed one avenue of research which might have revealed ideas and forms original to Japan. The native religion has been almost completely obscured by the vast iconography of Buddhism which has supplied nearly all the religious art of Japan. The gods of Buddhism were represented anthropomorphically. This method of depiction arose for Buddhism in India or at least beyond the limits of westernmost China. Unlike western art, that of the Far East rarely depicts abstract ideas such as Virtue or Dawn in glorified human form.

What is remarkable is the divergence between Japanese and Chinese standards in art. For any proper understanding of Japanese art it is essential to try to grasp the difference between the two cultures. Museum men in particular are plagued by the recurring question of how to distinguish Japanese art from Chinese; yet the same inquirers would expect the arts of France, Spain, or Italy each to require an independent treatment.

Emotional values, those of an impressionable and appreciative spirit, were esteemed in Japan more than the fruits of reason and philosophy. In spite of the proximity of China and of successive waves of cultural influences coming in from the continent there is in Japan a freedom of feeling which stands in strong contrast to the ethical high-mindedness expressed in the arts of China and reflecting the social philosophy of Confucius. There is revealed a faith in accepted ideas rather than an intellectual curiosity about them. The amount, quality, and popularity of Buddhist art is one aspect of the greater emotional longing of the Japanese. For centuries the culture of Japan centred around the Buddhist . . .

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