Nature's Smile

SINCE earliest days, flower arrangement in Japan has been closely interwoven with national art, literature, and religion — particularly with pictorial art in form, composition, and spirit, from the time of Yoshi Masa (1434-1490). Two different schools had developed. One followed the academic painting of Kano Ha, established by Kano Masa nobu (1424-1520) and upheld by the nobles of the court and the celebrated Buddhists at the monastery Nishi Yama. It was headed by the renowned So Ami (14501517), both in painting and in flower arrangement. This highly enshrined group eventually degenerated, through the usual steps of tyrannical formalism, affectation of dignity, to ‘art for art’s sake.’

The other school followed the technique of the old painting, Wa Ga Ryu (native style), of the eleventh century, and the Yamato-Tosa school of the thirteenth century, being free from affectation and academic intricacy. It gave birth to the ‘Nageire’ (which means ‘unpretentious’) through the genius of Rikyu (1520-1591), and later developed, along with Korin’s and the Shijo Ha school of painting, the Hokku poem of Basho (1644-1694) and the poems and paintings of his follower, Buson (1716-1783).

It is interesting to note that while the invention of the piano in Europe opened the way to limitless composition, orchestration, and variety in Occidental music, Japan’s limited range of orchestration and instruments had its effect upon her music and flower arrangement. The early invention of a painting brush with round bamboo stems definitely directed Japanese art toward the domination of line, with a delicacy of calligraph over color — just as the technique of the woodcut developed the line rather than the half-tones or color. So in Oriental art all distance, perspective, and color were subservient to the drawn line. Hence form dominated Japanese art and flower arrangement — stressing shape and grouping and composition, always governed by important fundamental principles intimately aligned with pictorial art.

The natural form of plants is principally symmetrical, because of mechanical impulses of growth, so when we say ' a perfect tree’ we mean one most symmetrically branched and geometrically shaped. The necessity of landscaping impressive buildings and tall colonnades with tall and symmetrical trees gave rise to the formal school in gardens. But, owing to the struggle of most earthly plants against the outer forces beating upon them, few achieve perfect form naturally. When we see a tall and perfect tree we greatly admire its sublime and majestic power — partly because instinctively we realize its victory over the gigantic forces which have worried and distressed every moment of its long life.

Perhaps with similar subconscious sympathy, born of our own weary struggle against the vicissitudes of life, we see, in the uncanny shape of some crooked and twisted tree clinging to a rocky cliff, a parallel to our own struggle against the storms of life, and such a plant acquires a picturesque and romantic value in our hearts as well as in our eyes — more so than if it were perfect. Such sentiments as these permeate the Nageire’s sketch of Nature, — the romantic, the picturesque, — and this fact I wish to bring to Occidentals who have been misled into believing that Japanese flower arrangements are Buddhistic temples of occult and mysterious religious wonders. They are more human. At one time in early Japanese history, flower arrangements were given to fierce warriors to humanize them.

Mr. Okakura writes in his Book of Tea that ‘ true beauty can be discovered only by one who mentally completes the incomplete. The virility of Life and art lay in the possibilities for growth, in which perfection is sought, rather than the perfect itself.’ And in Mr. Noguchi’s book on Japanese poetry we read, ‘The silent worshipers of the imperfect will congregate for the holy exercises of ritual to their imagination.’ Thus have I tried to study the perfect and imperfect, reality and sentiment, realism and idealism, West and East, only to bring us to think as man and Nature: to dissolve our thoughts into the universal infinity and see ourselves, not as a part of Nature, but as Nature itself — the aim of Japanese art, and hence of the Nageire in flower arrangement.

Who of us has not been enchanted by the smile of a single bright little flower posed against a rock, only to find that when we have plucked it, removing it from its setting, it is a very ordinary little flower? To grasp this trick of composition (the Nageire sketch of Nature), to bring out this bit of Nature’s flashing smile, to stir the imagination and sentiment — surely this is more precious than grouping many blossoms, rare only because of their market price.

Artistic, interesting flower arrangements that cause the beholder to cry out with delight, that awaken romance, sentiment, and our individual imaginations, cannot be achieved by endless study of diagrams, rules, and dimensions — each must be unique in itself, expressing only what you draw, which is the song of your own heart.

The old master Seki shu, follower of Rikyu, once made an arrangement with a picture of a flock of geese flying above a marshland, and some water plants in a flat dish. Sho ha, a master of the tea ceremony, composed some wild seashore plants in a vase, beside a hanging calligraph of beautiful poetry and a bronze incense burner in the form of a hut — deeply impressing the guests with the suggestion of the heralding of autumn and solitude.

These things appeal to the inner soul, and are the lamps to lead us to the higher culture which belongs to art and civilization. They are the language of culture; and to him who knows that language they are eloquent with drama and the poetry of life, going to the heart like a warm handclasp. ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin’ — and lo! East is West and West is East.