Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Commentary by Cpt F Brinkley, circa 1904

Karl Wunderlich, in Berlin, sent me a copy of the following piece of text which I think may be of great interest to some of you who . It comes from volume 7 of Cpt F Brinkley’s “Japan- Its History arts and Literature. Vol.7 . pictorial and applied art. London 1904”

The writing style may be a little old fashioned and some of the ideas he expresses are perhaps considered outdated today but I still think there is a lot to consider here. I’ve taken the liberty of inserting the odd explanation of some of the less common words, mainly for the benefit of some of you for whom English is a second language.

It is a saying of the philosopher Amamori Hoshiu that “in art there are four grades, The inferior ( heta ) , the skilled ( kosha ), the expert ( jozu ) and the master ( meijin ),” and that “ the same classification applies to the conduct of the gentleman.”

In such wise, also, may be distinguished the merits of carvers. Adopting that principle in compiling this work, I have divided the carvers of sword-furniture into three ranks.
Natural talent combined with the skill acquired by long practice constitute the" master," who stands, at the highest point of his art.
Next comes the "expert," concerning whom, however, a triple subdivision must be made ; namely, the expert who ranks next to and immediately after the master, then the expert who, though originally of "inferior" ability, has nevertheless by zealous ( enthusiastic )
and patient effort developed the skill which ought to be the aim of every student;
finally, the expert who by conceiving and executing some attractive novelty, obtains the passing plaudits ( praise ) of a curious public, but whose works ultimately lose their charm and stand revealed as unworthy of lasting admiration.

All artists that do not rise to the rank of " master " or " expert " may be classed as "common," There are certainly gradations ( levels or steps ) among these last, but the sum of the matter is that they belong to the "inferior" order and are persons of vulgar endowments ( common or crude abilities ). In every art the idea is first conceived, and the hand thereafter moves in obedience to the mind. The loftier ( more refined or higher ) the mind, the nobler the execution. An artist who produces inferior work should be ashamed rather than proud.The connoisseur of art objects must apply the same principle in forming his judgements. Nobility of mind, absolute impartiality ( not to choose sides ) , and entire disinterestedness ( not judging on the basis of your own taste ) are the three essentials of a sound critic.


The old-time carvers set out by learning from their masters how to handle the chisel, and when they had acquired skill in the technical processes they made their own designs and sought to develop a special style. Thus, even those that did not rise to the level of " experts" often produced work showing skill, force, and graces of composition.

So degenerate ( below a normal, decent level ), on the contrary, are modem carvers that if they find an old work of fine quality, they carefully copy it by taking an impression ( making a wax copy and casting ). But their unskilled use of the chisel easily betrays them, for their execution is invariably prolix ( taken an unnecessarily long time ) and awkward. None the less when, after long toil and much pain, they have succeeded in carving, polishing, and colouring, they fondly imagine themselves great artists, and with consummate ( skilful ?) silliness inscribe their names on these productions, pointing the finger of scorn at other sculptors.


It is with the carver as with the painter. The good pictorial artist, after acquiring a thorough knowledge of the uses of the brush as taught by his master, copies many fine old pictures and studies them earnestly, so that, when he comes to paint independently, he has always before his mind's eye a model showing the inimitably ( unique ) exquisite points of the great chefs-d'oeuvre ( masterpiece ) of the past. But he never prostitutes his natural talent so far as to make slavish ( unthinking ) imitations. Thus every touch of his brush is eloquent ( speaks well ) of original talent, and the true critic cannot fail to detect the merits of his work.

Very different is the practice of the "inferior" painter.
His solicitude ( concern or intention )is almost entirely about the motive of his
picture, scarcely at all about the brush-work. He is not
versed even in the rudimentary ( basic ) art of using the "charred
stick" (charcoal) to change the scale of a drawing, or to
alter the shape of the figures. He prefers to make tracings
of old pictures and to reproduce them with elaborate accuracy.
There are not a few of these imitators, and the connoisseur,
whether of painting or of sculpture, must needs be on his guard
lest he deceive others as well as himself.

One naturally supposes that men like Joi, Somin, Toshi-
Hisa, Yasuchika, and other masters, who, by giving birth to
a glyptic ( carving ) style of their own, achieved world-wide fame, and
whose doors were thronged by eager applicants for their
productions, must have amassed much wealth. But it is
impossible for a man to be great in art and mercenary at the
same time. The common craftsman as he bends over his
task, is forever estimating the wage it will bring. Thus the
taint of covetousness is inevitably transferred to his work,
constituting a feature which more and more repellent as time goes by,
and finally banishes the specimen to some degraded shop of a dealer in old metal.

The true artist, though conscious that he toils for a living,
has his recollection of the fact effaced ( to rub out ) by love for his work.
At times he will lay aside his chisel for months if he finds that his heart is not in his work. When the inspiration arrives, however, he becomes so completely absorbed in his task that he cannot bear to lay it aside, day or night, until it is finished.

There is vitality in the result ; it is surpassingly good. But if the question of gain be considered, it is found that although the productions of the master fetch a high price, the profit to him is not as great as that accruing from inferior work quickly executed (made) and cheaply sold.
The poet Basho says, " Pity it is that the shira-uo (a, tiny river-
fish of silvery transparency and almost colourless, Japanese anchovy) should
have a price." A great artist is injured when the price of
his work is discussed : it should be above price. Business
men would do well to lay this precept to heart; " Only to
accumulate gold and silver is to be their slave." The true
aim should be to develop an extensive trade and to achieve
a great career, just as the artist cherishes and strives for the
reputation of his art rather than of himself.

7 comments:

Doug Sanders said...

Thank-you Ford and Karl, for that essay; I've just read it through twice. I don't think there's much to comment about further, as I agree with what's said and it has provided me with some fortitude. I had a look in the library catalog at the university where I work, and they have the original series from the turn of the century. I'll be borrowing a copy soon!

Hyllyn said...

Delightful piece of writing Ford. Thanks for sharing it.

I would hope I'm not committing any disservice to the writing in question by adding my interpretation of certain words. Most of the lexicom used is actually quite common to readers of most other languages if they care to look at the root of the word.

The words I would like to express a difference of interpretation are: zeal/zealous; and consummate.

Zeal I would instead read as fervorous rather than enthusiastic, I think it goes beyond enthusiasm for there's a tacit acceptance of the role the person performs in relation to (in this case) the learning of said Art. So to pursue its paths and avenues with rigorous discipline and devotion far surpasses enthusiasm that can be doused like lesser whims.

As for consummate, I would read it as a thorough and accomplished way to perform something.

Apologies for any sesquipedalianism, and once more thanks for sharing.

ford said...

Glad you appreciated the read Doug.

Hi Hyllyn, you pedant you, I actually deliberately tried to keep the "definitions" as simple as possible but I should have known you'd put me right.

Perhaps I should get you to translate the whole essay into Spanish, ;-)

Glad you appreciated it though, cheers, Ford

p.s I will still get those images to you although the content has changed a little.

Megatron said...

I was a bit surprised because the words between ( ) are so similar to italian language that i could understand those all, except endowments, slavish, effaced and loftier ;)

Hyllyn said...

Oh come on, I was just clearing things up :P

Yeah I can do that no problem, but only after I finish helping my better half with her dissertation :P

The whole essay doesn't lose its validity even nowadays, perhaps it becomes more relevant in this day and age.

I look forward to those images, I thought for a moment you had changed your mind. Oh and another thing, how are those tutorials coming? I want to practice katakiri-bori and in the copies you gave me there's no exercises for it. Did we do some Maru-bori too? it's just that I was reading through my old e-mails and I can-t remember if you mentioned it being in the tutorials.

Regards (the very best of course)

Hyllyn

Doug Sanders said...

One comment I'd like to make is that although I think the opinions expressed in the essay are valid today, they are also timeless to a certain extent. It seems to me that every generation laments skills lost and experts deceased from the previous generation, and the slipping of standards with the new. Do others see this essay as some generational bellyaching? Perhaps others would like to comment on what Japan's arts and crafts professions were going through at the turn of the 19th century, to produce the shortcuts and posturing mentioned.

ford said...

Hi Doug,

I think you make a very good point about society always harking back to a golden past. I would add though, that if you consider the times when this particular piece was written we can see at least one very significant change that would have been very much in the writers mind.

I mean of course, the industrial revolution. Writers and critics like Ruskin and William Morris had deplored the loss of skilled handwork and even attempted to remedy this by trying to stimulate a return a sort of idyllic "golden age of craftsmanship" that never existed.

It was still very evident, I think, to many commentators in Europe at the time that artistic standards in the applied arts had fallen noticeably. There are also many other writers on the East who describe a similar degeneration there as it occurred over 20 or so years.

We are in a slightly different situation now, at the start of the 21st century, in that we have the benefit of hind sight. It may be possible to understand what we have lost and how we might regain those aspects that may prove to be of value to us.

I'm hoping that the new forum will address exactly this issue and others like it and I trust that we can count on your thoughts there too.

regards, Ford