'Pampas Field'


IT was a strange picture of an ocean, painted by a new acquaintance of mine, that started this discussion. The picture was one of the most weird seascapes I had seen. There was a large round moon at the farthest reach of the sea, but the water did not reflect its light. The waves were long, turbid, and unbroken, resembling the waves over a wind-swept grainfield. And, on the crests of these, thousands of shadowy hands were slowly moving. Then, to make the picture still more mysterious, there was the title, ‘Pampas Field.’

‘It is all so strange,’ I said. ‘Why do you call it “Pampas Field”? Is it not the picture of an ocean?’

The artist smiled at my bewilderment. ‘I gave it that title,’ he explained, ‘because it represents my impression of a pampas field. We artists are often caught between the visual aspect and the emotional aspect of things. Sometimes the two go hand in hand, but sometimes they totally differ from each other. At such a time, we usually swing to the side of emotion, because, as you know, we are addressing the hearts rather than the minds. We Japanese go much further in this respect than the Occidentals, because we are less scientific and more æsthetic than they.

‘When I conceived the idea of this picture, I was standing on the edge of an immense pampas field. Between me and the great full moon, which was slowly rising, stretched a vast plain, covered with pampas grass. As it was late in autumn, the flowers of the grass had lost their snowy plumes, and their veins, standing out in dark gray, seemed like ghostly hands. And these hands — millions and millions of them — were standing in the moonlight.

‘As I was watching this weird spectacle, a wind rose, stirring up long waves over the plain. It was a sharp wind — something like the breeze rising from the edge of breakers. And this wind, together with the waving and rustling of the grass, conjured up the vision of an immense ocean with ghostly hands tossing on the crests of giant waves.’

In order that I might not misunderstand the nature and extent of the artistic license he took, he described the amount of care his fellow artists gave to making truthful portrayal of nature.

‘You must not conclude, however,’ he said, ‘that we arc totally indifferent to the visual aspects of things. Take, for instance, that picture of a plum tree hanging there. It shows not only the character of a plum tree, but its age and the season. A massive trunk, with black bark rising over it in sharp ridges; heavy limbs spreading like arms of a swarthy giant, gnarled branches shooting stiffly skyward, covered with needle-sharp twigs. Beneath all these coil and twist mighty roots, holding the tree to the ground so firmly that not even a thunderbolt seems able to loosen their iron grip. As a striking contrast to this symbol of infinite power and stability, there are the blossoms. Delicate and graceful white blossoms, resting like melting snowflakes upon the craggy tree.

‘These are the true characteristics of a plum tree. No other tree on earth possesses exactly the same quality.

‘This picture also suggests the age of the tree. The gray moulds growing on the trunk, the unusual blackness and stiffness of the limbs, the abundance of small branches and twigs, and the size and position of the blossoms suggest that it is a tree which has lived through unnumbered winters.

‘The feel of early spring is also interpreted in this picture. The blossoms, of course, suggest the season more than anything else; but there are other signs. Among the twisted old branches are new saplings, straight, sleek, and full of life. The roots of the tree and the ground about them appear to have recently emerged from under the snow. They are wet — not merely drenched, but soaked through. It is the kind of soaking that shows days and days of immersion. From among the tangles of yellow grass young leaves are peeping out. They seem to have been pushed up by the fiery impulse of springtime, and are vibrating with vigor and aspiration. These, and the soft and dreamy atmosphere, and the white mists lying lightly across distant hills, bespeak the time when the earth awakes from a long slumber and faces a new adventure.

‘ By the way, the feel of season is one of the most difficult things for us to interpret. It is difficult mainly because it must be done with the utmost subtlety and originality. We confess our own immaturity when we resort to the obvious and conventional, using cherry blossoms for spring and flaming maples for autumn. A Chinese artist is said to have painted the scene of butterflies following a horse in his attempt to interpret the poem, —

‘I pass a forest of flowering plum trees, The scent of blossoms clings to the hoofs of my steed.

‘Such obvious method is used only by amateurs, or in exceptional cases. A master draws a falling leaf, and, without any tangible signs, we know to what season it belongs — whether it is a summer leaf, dropping stifled by heat and dust, or an autumn leaf, leaving the tree after running the full course of its life. This process is intensely subjective, and therefore extremely difficult; but, when it is well done, we have a masterpiece. That picture of the plum tree is rather too obvious, but it shows how much care we give to the faithful interpretation of nature.’


This explanation was so interesting that before I knew it I was asking my new acquaintance all sorts of questions. I asked about the significance of the linear technique which distinguishes Japanese art from that of the Occident.

‘We seem to be line-minded,’ he said. ‘We use lines not only in paintings, but in all other forms of art. Take, for example, sculpture. A carving is judged mainly by the knife marks it bears. These knife marks are none other than the lines made with a knife or a chisel. Another example is flower arrangement. I understand that the flower art of the Occident is based on color harmony. Ours is based upon the posture of vines and branches. We divide these branches and vines into heaven, earth, and man, and arrange them in such a way that they constitute artistic posture. It is distinctly linear in its fundamental principle.

‘By the way,’ he cried, as if impelled by an irresistible desire to digress, ‘our flower artists are just as emotional in their interpretation as we are. One day I saw one of them arrange morning-glories in a bamboo vase shaped like a ship. Instead of following conventional ideas, he planted one of the flowers straight and another trailing down from the stern. “This is a ship in mid-ocean,” he explained. “Hence the sail is hoisted high and the rudder is made ready for a long voyage. I try to interpret the spirit of adventure in the whole posture. Sometimes I have the sail down and the anchor cast, in order to interpret the restfulness of a moored ship. Then, occasionally, I have everything down to represent the care-free spirit of a drifting ship — nowhere to go, nowhere to return — just drifting along.”

‘The lines are very important in our art, because they have a greater task to perform than the ones in Occidental art. Our lines are each a complete picture. There are life, feeling, and purpose in every line. And these small pictures contribute much to the æsthetic and emotional value of the whole. Sometimes the value of lines predominates over that of the picture. Occasionally a commonplace object treated in a commonplace manner becomes a masterpiece because of excellent lines.

‘Lines being so important, we take infinite care in executing them. We produce them, not mechanically, but spiritually, casting our heart and soul into them. “When drawing a line,” said a master, “throw your whole being into your brush so thoroughly that if the brush were cut in the middle your lifeblood would flow from it.” “A living picture can be created only with living lines,” said another; “see that every line you draw vibrates with life and feeling.” “Line is a highly concentrated thing,” said still another. “It has tremendously suggestive power. It is the sword that can destroy as well as protect.”’

The artist then told me that Japanese art is essentially monochromatic. ‘We use other colors,’ he said; ‘but they are not quite so effective as black. Black holds, and can suggest, all the colors a human mind can conceive. Even white can be produced by it. I saw the picture of plum blossoms painted with black, and these blossoms showed all the delicate whiteness of real flowers. Color is largely a matter of harmony and contrast. Placed in a certain relationship, it changes its character. Besides, we are creating not a color, but the illusion of a color.

‘This monochromatic tendency is becoming more and more manifest in our art to-day. We have tried polychrome and found it to be quite convenient; but there are certain things in the monochrome that are singularly suited to our mode of expression. There are depth, power, subtlety, concentration. Moreover, we are most skilled in the use of black, having used it from the very beginning of our graphic art. Hence we are trending more and more toward the monochrome, and it is my prediction that some day black and white will dominate our entire art world.’


The question I brought out next was about the difference between Japanese art and the art of other countries.

‘That is one of those subjects that can be discussed only in a relative manner,’ he said. ‘The racial and national character of art is just as difficult to define as that of people. Art expresses human nature, and human nature is too varied and complicated to be categorized geographically or traditionally. All I can say is that such and such seems to be true in a majority of cases. ‘Let us first compare our art with that of our nearest neighbor, China. Comparing the paintings of that country with those of ours, we discover that hers seem to interpret a sense of peace, while ours seem to suggest a sense of action. Great peace and a sort of transcendental resignation prevail in Chinese paintings. Heaven-high mountains, ocean-deep gorges, interminable plains, all suggest the feel of infinite peace. Even the moving things, like soaring birds, running animals, sailing ships, and walking men, express repose, rather than action.

‘This is true not only of art, but of all other kindred matters in that country. Her mythology, philosophy, poetry, fiction, drama, are all based on the same ideal of peace and negation. According to her mythology, the world is the body of Pan-Ku, a giant who carved the Universe out of chaos. When this giant died, his body turned into the earth, and the insects feeding on his back were transformed into human beings. Nature, then, is the remains of a dead giant; and, therefore, it is full of repose. Although its outward objects bear the semblance of life, its heart and soul are forever silent.

‘The same idea is expressed in the philosophy of China. “Non-being is the beginning and end of being,” says a philosopher; “non-action the beginning and end of action. In order to be eternal, one must emerge from the realm of being and action, and meet nature in the domain of endless peace.” “Fools run and stumble,” says another, “while the wise sit and meditate. All our acts are futile, because no one can change the course of destiny. Come away from the world of desires and struggles; meditate in the heart of great nature; and you will find the gate that leads you into the world of immortality.” It is true that there were teachers like Confucius and Mencius, who taught the value of active life, but Lao-tse and his disciples, whom the writers and artists in general claim as their masters, all preached the doctrine of peace and contemplation.

‘The same is true of literature. Thousands and thousands of Chinese poems express deep yearning for the life of peace and the joy that comes in the hours of repose and negation. Even the drama, in which action is supremely important, is fraught with the sense of repose and abstraction. It is little wonder, then, that a spirit of peace predominates in the art of China.

‘Japanese art, on the contrary, expresses a sense of action. We portray moving aspects of man and nature. We are so tremendously interested in life; and life manifests itself in action. Therefore we inject action into everything we draw. Even in a still life sometimes there is a suggestion of movement somewhere. An artist once went to sketch an iris flower. He observed the flower several days without touching his brush. One day a wind rose and the iris trembled. He snatched his brush and the picture was done.

‘Japanese art seems to be more humanistic than Chinese. The Chinese place tremendous emphasis upon nature, treating human beings as mere supplements. They are great worshipers of nature. China is an enormous country. It holds within its borders mountains that rise to the very seat of the sun and spread so far away that they seem to wall up the entire earth; rivers that are so long and so wide that they seem to come, as a poet once described, from the depth of the ninth heaven and flow to the end of eternity; and plains that are wide enough to hold several empires within their bosoms.

’Living amid scenes of such grandeur, the Chinese cannot help having a sense of reverence toward nature. They seem so small and unimportant — mere pygmies in the land of giants. Everywhere around them stands immense nature, sometimes warning them that some day it will crumble down upon them and crush their petty civilization, and sometimes urging them to abandon the futile hopes and strifes of the human world and come forth to find peace and immortality in its vast, silent, and eternal bosom.

‘Having such a deep sense of reverence toward nature, Chinese artists take great interest in depicting its appalling power and magnitude. Peaks rising above peaks in sublime dignity, cataracts thundering down from infinite heights to the very foundation of the earth, ravines so deep and so savage that even a stout-winged bird does not approach them, plains so vast and desolate that no creature dare enter their confines. These are the things we find in most Chinese pictures.

‘And amid these stupendous monuments of nature human beings are thinly scattered. They are so tremendously subdued that one often fails to recognize them. They remind one of the insects crawling on the back of that giant, Pan-Ku.

‘It is true that in some pictures — particularly in religious ones — human beings are described in a more dignified manner, and that some of them even seem to dominate nature. But such examples are rare, and many of those human beings so emphasized are likely to be Shen — that is, the men who achieved supernatural power by uniting themselves with nature.

‘This tendency to glorify nature is most prevalent in the pictures of the Northern School, for the climate in the North is full of magnitude and desolation; but it is present even in the paintings of the Southern School.

‘In this respect Chinese art makes an interesting contrast with the art of the Occident. The Occidentals are quite partial to human beings. They tremendously emphasize them in their art, using nature as a mere background. Recently, however, they have begun to give it a higher value, resulting in the appearance of the masterpieces in which the grandeur and beauty of nature are described with consummate skill.

‘Looking into our art, we find that it gives more importance to human beings than Chinese art. We have more faith in our lives and activities. Our art is built, not upon the worship of man or nature, but upon the harmony of the two. The nature in our country inspires more love than reverence. Our mountains are never too high, rivers never too long, plains never too wide. The climate here is quite mild, and the scenery abounds in delicate types of beauty. Naturally we have a great love for the things around us, and like to live in harmony with them. This idea is expressed in everything we do. We arrange flowers, not in order to use them as a part of our household decoration, but in order to express our love for them. We sometimes drop cherry blossoms in our tea, not so much because we like their taste as because we like to revive the joy of springtime in our hearts. We hold the feasts of blossom time and full moon, not merely to see the blossoms and the moon, but to taste the sense of being one with nature. We celebrate the Star Festival, not because we believe in the romance of the Star Princess, but because it enables us to show our love of nature. On the day of the Star Festival, as you know, we go out to the garden at the break of dawn and collect dewdrops from the hearts of opening lotus flowers. Then, with the ink made of the dewdrops, we write love poems on the five-colored tablets. We dedicate these poems to the Star Princess by tying these tablets to the greenest bamboo trees in the garden. Sometimes we march under the starry sky, carrying branches of decorated bamboo trees on our shoulders. And then, casting the branches into a river, we watch them sail down the stream to the home of the Morning Star. A childish custom, one may say. It shows how much of love we hold for nature.

’This love of nature, and the desire to live in harmony with it, constitute one of the most fascinating characters of our art.

‘Let us now compare our art with that of the Occident. The first thing that comes to our notice is that ours is more æsthetic, while theirs is more truthful. We are more inclined to say that all beautiful things are true, while they have a tendency to say that all true things are beautiful. We take great liberties for the sake of beauty, while they dare many things for the sake of truth.

‘Recently, however, the truth element has begun to increase in our art. This is particularly true of portraits and animal pictures. Some of our artists go abroad to study anatomy as applied to art. The Occidentals, on the other hand, are beginning to sacrifice truth for the sake of beauty. Their art is becoming increasingly decorative. Thus the art ideals of the East and West are gradually approximat ing each other.

‘Another thing that distinguishes our art from that of the West is the degree of abstraction. We eliminate details more thoroughly than they do. This is possible, first, because we are not required to paint our silk completely. We are not criticized for leaving vacant spaces in our picture, because our requirement is to see that the silk has the feel of being completely covered. It does not matter how few strokes we use as long as we execute those strokes so forcefully that they dominate the entire space. Hundreds of amateurs, tumbling about in violent action, leave many empty spots on the stage, while a seasoned actor, alone and without perceptible motion, fills the space. The principle is the same in our art. We are concerned not so much with lines and colors as with the power behind them.

‘The second reason that enables us to eliminate nonessentials more thoroughly is that we are more accustomed to the concentrated forms of expression. Our poetry is the last word in compactness, and our flower art presents a complete aspect of nature with a few branches. We use this method because it enables us to interpret the thoughts and images that are beyond the power of words and colors to portray, and because it gives to our public the pleasure of exercising its creative ability. The poems with sentiments deftly unexpressed, the pictures with the imagery artistically unfinished, interest us far more deeply than the complete ones, for such poems and pictures give us the joy of creating living poems and pictures of our own.

‘By the way, this reminds me of an amusing incident which occurred some time ago. One day I bought a large rock and started to bury it in my garden. My neighbor asked me what I was doing.

‘“I am going to bury it so that only these two comers will show,” I said.

‘He was very much surprised. “Why,” he cried, “that will make it seem small!”

'"On the contrary, it will make it seem immense,” I retorted; “because to the seeing eyes these comers will seem like the corners of the great earth.”

‘He scratched his head and went away, mumbling something about the queer notions of artists. ‘Art is the exposed corner of a buried rock. Some artists bury the rock shallow, so that the public may have more to begin with, but we bury it deep, because our public is able to create a mountain out of a pebble.’


Before leaving the artist, I asked one more question. I wanted to know why Japanese color prints are so popular in America.

‘Not being a student of American psychology,’ he said, ‘ I am not able to answer the question with any degree of definiteness. We were puzzled when it became known that Americans had taken a great fancy to our prints, and begun to collect them in large numbers. We did not have very complimentary ideas about that type of picture. There are a number of good ones, of course, and some of the lines and colors used in them are excellent; but most of them are lacking in depth, subtlety, freedom, spiritual grace, and scholarly dignity. As their general name, Ukiyoye, suggests, they are the images of the floating world — that is, the superficial aspects of life presented in a superficial way. So that their tremendous popularity in America was a source of mystery for us. Some of us were frankly worried, fearing that the Americans might take them as the examples of our real art; while some smiled and thought, “Those incomprehensible foreigners — they will do almost anything. Let us watch and see how long the fad will continue.”

‘And, while we were thus frowning and smiling, the interest in our prints spread far and wide in America, until the names Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro, Sharaku, were on the lips of nearly all the art lovers there. Some of our largest and best collections went to that country, and some Americans became authorities on the color prints.

‘This made us step down from the pedestal of indifference and make a careful study of the color prints. In this research we tried to evaluate the prints in their relation to life, rather than to art. Judged in the light of our art ideals, their value was insignificant; but, judged by the amount of joy they bring to mankind, they might have certain redeeming features. Therefore we abandoned our orthodox ideals, and endeavored to discover the elements of charm from a layman’s point of view.

‘Among the things we found during the search was the quality of being democratic. The color prints, as you know, were created mostly by the members of lower classes. Fan makers, doll makers, vegetable men, fish venders, and such produced these miniature pictures. Color prints are not the nightingale that sings in a golden cage, but the sparrows that play in the dusty streets; not the cloud that soars in the high sky, but the dewdrops that come to freshen wayside flowers. Hearts of the common people, working, playing, dreaming in straw huts and dingy shops, sing and laugh in the Ukiyoye. Hence the pictures are direct in appeal, unassuming in general attitude, and chock-full of heart interest.

‘Another thing we discovered was that the color prints are eloquent with the joy of life. These pictures appeared toward the end of the Yedo period. And the Yedo period was one of the gayest eras in our history. It was, in truth, the time of eternal sunshine and everlasting blossoms, when people lived pretty much like the butterflies in a sunny meadow. Butterflies may still have the fear of frosty mornings and the sorrow of broken wings; but the common people of that golden age had no such matters to darken their minds. The sorrow of empty fireside and eternal waiting had already been forgotten, because war had ended some two hundred years before; and there was no fear of international complications to disturb them, because Japan was then a hermit empire. So they were very happy indeed, and they lived only to make their country a gayer, happier, and more beautiful place to live in. When spring brought warm sunshine and shimmering blossoms, they would lay their daily task aside and go forth to sing and dance on the mountain side, and when summer arrived, with skylarks and green shadows, they would stroll into forests and to rivers and watch the play of wild birds and the dance of fireflies. So with autumn and winter. When the flame of maples burned among the gold of poplars and chestnut trees, and when snow came to hang crystals upon bamboo trees and lay mirrors around lotus flowers, they gathered in the valleys and homes and gave expressions of joy in music and poetry. And always, always, there were night bazaars, theatres, and festivals.

‘And this spirit of everlasting joy is delightfully expressed in these color prints. There are, of course, some that treat of the lonely and wistful side of life, such as the landscapes of Hiroshige; but the prints in general are vibrant with the spirit of joy, so that when one turns to them he can forget the woes and restlessness of the present time, even as the warriors of the dark age forgot the horrors of war in the sanctity of the tea garden, and enjoy the same glorious sunshine, the same dancing blossoms, and the same song and laughter of the Yedo period.

‘The third thing we discovered was that these prints are intensely Japanese in subject matter and underlying sentiments. Many of our orthodox artists studied the principles of Chinese masters as a part of their training, and consequently were more or less influenced by Chinese ideals. Some of them were so extremely Chinese in their ideals and technique that we are scarcely able to distinguish their work from that of Chinese. The makers of color prints, however, did not take such a course of training, being mostly too ignorant to understand the foreign theory, which was set forth with elaborate and often obscure language. As a result, they were entirely free from Chinese influence. They looked at things from the Japanese point of view, and interpreted them with the directness, simplicity, and urbanity of old Japan. The poetic, humane, and whimsical heart of Japan sings through their products.

‘In this respect, color prints come nearest to the American’s ideas of Japan. As shown in the works of American writers like Lafcadio Hearn, Japan, as pictured by them, is the land of shimmering pagodas, dancing blossoms, gay festivals, and merry night bazaars. The aspects of old Japan presented in the color prints, therefore, are more harmonious with their ideas of our country.

‘There is still another thing we discovered. And that is the charm of the colors used in them. These colors are interpretative of the colors of the Yedo period. Yedo was one of the most colorful periods in the history of our country. It was the time when people combined the crimson of azalea, purple of iris, green of bamboo, blue of sea waves, and gold of moonlight in their personal and household ornaments. Even the stolid warriors wore shimmering brocade dresses and carried gold-hilted, jewel-encrusted swords. And, as for women and children, they lived in a blaze of brilliant colors. Innumerable hairdresses of tortoise shell, adorned with silver trinkets and golden tassels, formed halos around their heads, while drifting maple leaves or snowy sea birds playing atop green waves formed patterns on their dresses, making delightful contrasts with the obi of red or green brocade splashed with silver and gold. When there was a festival, the streets were walled up by bright-colored blossoms and roofed over by thousands and thousands of lanterns. And through this glorious kingdom of shimmering flowers and swinging lanterns they carried lacquered shrines and magnificent show boats. The colors of this most colorful age live in our color prints, reproduced not by mere artists, but by the men who gave colors to the Yedo period. The print artists, as you remember, were mostly artisans. They were dyers, embroiderers, and makers of fans, dolls, lanterns, flags, and silk flowers. As such, they did much to enrich the colors of their period. The colors in our prints, therefore, are not objective portrayal, but subjective interpretation made by the creators of the colors of the Yedo.

‘I do not know if the Americans began to like our prints because of these reasons, but I am glad that they are so popular in that country. I hope that these tiny messengers will go into all the homes, schools, and societies of America and interpret our ideals and sentiments, so that, over the bridge of understanding and sympathy they build, the rose of America and the cherry trees of Japan may mingle their branches and become one.’