The Flower Art of the Japanese
October 3rd, 1891
A new and delightful page of the great book of Japanese art has lately been opened and interpreted to the Western world by a very competent hand.
Of the national love for floral beauties, as manifested in the national customs and art, no one having any knowledge of this country can fail to be well aware.
Rich from ancient times in a fine art instinct, the Japanese have always loved flowers, and spared no pains to cultivate them.
With nearly every month and every national festival are identiied the chief flowers and flowerng shrubs and trees of the season.
Flower-viewing excursions to the displays of plum and cherry blossoms, wistaria, peony, lotus, chrysanthemum, and other floral delights, that are to be found in and about all of the principal cities, rank among the best-loved of Japanese holiday pastimes.
Even in card-playing, the most fashionable game-Hana-awase, or the "pairing of flowers" - has its 12 suits named and decorated after the chief flowers that are associated, severally, with the 12 months of the year.
And in the nation's art products generally the favourite themes are the ordinary and familiar flowers endeared to the popular taste by long custom and association.
But that the flower charm which thus pervades the national life had found a deeper and more refined expression in the developemnt - during the last four or five centuries especially - of a highly artistic cult of flower arrangement was a fact till lately unknown, or at least known only to residents in Japan and a few amateurs of her art abroad.
Even these, however, barely knew more than that such a science existed - that it was one of the polite accomplishments of the Japanese, that it was specially cultivated by priests, philosophers, and dilettanti, taught to the ladies, girls, and even boys, of the middle and upper classes, and governed by strict rules of ceremony and etiquette.
By some of us the happy discovery had been made that there lived in every Japanese city, flower artists who, for a trifling payment, would attend at our houses regularly and arrange flowers for the rooms and table with a degree of grace and skill beside which everything of the kind in our previous experience seemed paltry and almost vulgar.
But that was all.
Though we could, and did, admire enthusiastically the matchless charm of the finished work, the details and principles of the art that produced it were a dark and seemingly hopeless mystery.
At length Mr. Conder approached the problem, bringing to his task, besides the necessary qualification of a sound knowledge of Japanese, considerable artistic qualities on his own part.
A paper on the "Theory of Japanese Flower Arrangement" read before the Asiatic Society of Japan in October, 1889, was the first fruit of his researches, and that has now been elaborated into the very thorough and attractive quarto volume, rich with illustrations, to which I devote this letter.
Mr. Conder, it is to be observed, has made the subject of Japan's floral art peculiarly his own.
He is its sole foreign apostle and expounder.
Everything published about it since 1889 is simply Mr, Conder's original paper at second-hand.
Of the interesting book now before the public it is not too much to say that it is a revelation.
In it every detail of the delicate and ancient craft of flower arangement in Japan is laid bare and explained.
The origin of the cult is apparently religious, its first teachers in this country having been the priests who introduced Buddhism from China in the sixth century.
Underlying it, moreover, is the Buddhist doctrine of the economy of life.
By the Japanese, who are deeply imbued with that doctrine, flowers and plants, as living things, are held to deserve the treatment due to sentient objects.
Growth and vitality must, therefore, be expressed in the floral adornments of interiors; and the surface of the water in which the flowers are set is conventionally regarded as the soil from which they spring.
The main idea, in fact, is to achieve designs in which all the components shall seem to be really and healthily growing.
It follows that at least as much attention must be given to the stems as to the foliage and blossoms.
Life and vigour at the "up-springing" are sine qua non of all compositions.
Further, in order to keep up the conception of growth, there must be no breach of the rules as to seasonableness.
Things floral within the house must correspond with those that actually exist without.
Only the plants proper to the time of year, as classified in authorized lists for each month, may be used for indoor floral displays.
The number of species in those lists is about 240.
But, when considering Japan's floral art, it is necessary to remember that the Japanese word Hana has a wider meaning than its nearest English equivalent "flower".
It includes, for example, the pine, willow, and bamboo, freely used in floral decoration in this country, as well as other evergreens and flowerless shrubs.
The maple also, when its leaves are reddened, is one of the chief "flowers" of autumn.
Another characteristic of the floral kingdom is the abundance of blossoming trees and shrubs - such as the wild camellia, azalea, magnolia, plum, peach, and cherry - all of which figure largely in Japanese floral arrangements.
With this abundance there co-exists an apparent paucity of the lesser flowers of the field, forest, and garden, so lavishly produced by the soils of many other countries.
It being the Japanese conception of flowers that they are to be regarded and treated as living things, not merely the blossoms but all the characteristics of the plant or tree producing them are lovingly studied by the flower artist of Japan.
For him, the Western nosegay, wreath, or garland, made of lovely buds and blossoms huddled together in a mass, with ferns or other greenery amongst them, has neither beauty nor artistic merit.
In his eyes, indeed, such treatment almost savours of ruthless butchery.
Taught in a far different school, he gives his attention alike to the lines of branch and stem, the forms and surfaces of leaves, and the distribution of buds and blossoms, and seeks to produce as faithfully as may be in his design the semblance of veritable growth.
Hence, Japanese floral compositions have a more or less open, lineal character, in which the individual forms of stems, branches, leaves, and flowers are all clearly expressed.
They are, in fact, "synthetic designs in line," as Mr. Conder puts it; and the choice of directions for the different stems and branches is the fundamental part of every arrangement.
Two points may be noted here.
First, that the character of many of the Japanese "flowers" is admirably suited to this system of lineal composition, in which form is at least as important as colour.
Secondly, that the special art genius of the people-to wit, their signal faculty for appreciating lineal beauty - tended in the same direction, and found within the limits of the precepts laid down by the early masters a splendid scope for the play of artistic fancy.
No one can examine the plates that illustrate Mr.Conder's chapter on lineal distribution without admiring the masterly strength and grace of the lines that form the basis of the recognized styles of flower arrangement.
Nor, without seeing the book or actual specimens from life, is it possible to appreciate worthily either the extent to which the Japanese have elaborated their unique and exquisite art, or the value of the lessons therein that we are now at liberty to learn.
Balance and harmony without repetition, and a studious avoidance of symmetry, are the guiding rules in these compositions - rules, it will be seen, which, while conforming to Nature itself, afford scope for endless variety of design.
A trilineal arrangement, consisting of three stems of diffrent lengths disposed in bold curves, is the simplest and most rudimentary form.
An appearance of strength at the up-springing is obtained by adherence to established canons, and the idea of vertical growth is commonly subserved by giving to the main or central line a double curve, somewhat in the shape of a bent bow, having its extremities in or near the same vertical.
The secondary and shorter curve is made to branch from the convex side of the bow, low down; and the tertiary, or shortest, forms a yet lower point on the concave side.
By changing the directions and shapes of these curves, while at the same time sticking to broad principles, the artist can evidently command a wide range of designs of this class.
When it is sought to suggest floral growths leaning laterally from the edges of cliffs or banks, the whole design is so disposed that the string of the imaginary bow becomes horizontal instead of vertical.
In rare cases a single line composition is used; more rarely a bilineal device, when the arrangement is to consist only of a single flower and a single leaf.
There are, again, five-line and seven-line compositions, all governed by precepts aimed at preserving artistic balance and harmony, and capable, of course, of almost infinite variation, considerable latitude of azimuthal deviation of the members being permitted, in addition to changes of position, form and length.
Turning, next, to the selection and grouping of materials, we find in the Japanese system a code of precepts framed, for the most part, in the purest art spirit, though some of them are more or less conventional.
Sometimes the composition is made with a single species; sometimes with two or three.
In every case appropriateness and, as already said, seasonableness are rigidly observed, as well as certain distinctions between trees and plants, between land and water plants, and between the products of mountain, moor, and valley.
When more than one species is used, variety is sought by combining trees and plants, always, however, with due regard to fixed aesthetic principles.
Thus, in a trilineal composition there must be no sandwiching of a tree between two plants, or vice versa, lest weakness and insipidity should be the result.
Colour-sandwiching, it may be added, is also forbidden - as, for example, the placing of a white blossom between two red blossoms.
Spring compositions must be powerful in line, to suggest the vigorous growth of that season; those of summer should be full and spreading; those of autumn spare and lean; those of winter withered and dreary.
With certain rare exceptions, no flower-bearing plant may be used when it shows leaves only; nor may plants or trees that bear leaves at blossom-time be used with their flowers alone.
Among other prohibitions are the arrangement of large blossoms in regular steps or rows, the use of feebly drooping leaves, and the placing of any flower that has leaves on either side of it so as to directly face the spectator.
When the composition has but one kind of flower, the full blossoms are generally used for the principal stem, half-open flowers for the secondary, and buds for the tertiary.
Leaves are classified as the young, the full, and the reddening or falling, each having its proper sphere to fill.
Straight leaves are accounted strong, and curled or bent leaves weak; and in thinning out a composition at least two strong leaves must be left for every weak one.
In the above and a host of other details harmony and fidelity to nature must be always observed.
No one, in fact, can properly cultivate the floral art of this country without acquiring an intimate knowledge of the nature and growth of the whole array of trees and plants that may come under his hands, and even of the varying characteristics of such of them as are allowed to be used in more than one month of the year.
As for the flower vessels of the Japanese, they are remarkable alike for variety and beauty.
Each is a work of art, capable of distinct artistic expression.
The same is true of the flower arangements.
Hence, in choosing the vessel for his composition, or vice versa, the artist seeks appropriateness and aethetic harmony of the two - not in proportion alone, but also in the spirit which they breathe.
In the latter respect, however, this accord need not be complete; it is even produced sometimes by a well-judged contrast.
For the materials of the flower receptacles, wood, porcelain, pottery, bronze, brass, iron, and basket-work are used, and wrought into multitudinous forms of vases, bowls, tubs, boxes, dishes, baskets, boats, cylinders, and other objects.
Vessels for standing, for hooking, and for hanging form the three great classes.
One of Mr. Conder's most attractive chapters is that in which he has described and bountifully illustrated this part of the subject, as well as the fantastic varieties of flower chariots, flower fastners, trays and stands, the rules as to the use of water, and the employment of stones and rocks as accessories in certain compositions.
An important detail which the flower artist of Japan needs to master is the position in the room that properly belongs to each class of his handiwork, under such and such circumstances.
Except, however, as a mark of the refined consideration which has been extended to every branch of this chaste and gentle cult, that part of the subject has little direct interest for Western readers.
Nearly the same may be said of the subtle code that sets forth the recognized affinities between floral arrangements and etiquette, depending largely as this does on the flower symbolism peculiar to the country, which is begotten of tradition, superstition, Chinese philosophy, fancy, and other elements.
Under the symbolism 24 of the whole series of 240 permissible flowers are deemed suitable to felicitous occasions, and of these there are seven which enjoy specially high rank.
On the other hand, some 50 species may not be used at times of ceremony and congratulation, and for various reasons are not used at any time if other flowers are to be had.
"Ominous" flowers-those, namely, that are believed to have poisonous properties - are wholly forbidden.
Some flowers and compositions are held to signify good luck, others evil; others sundry ideas, sentiments, and virtues.
In these expressions the flower vessel is often an important factor.
And, inasmuch as the chief object of domesic floral displays is to give pleasure or pay compliment to visitors or guests, the possibilities of this charming art in adroit and gracious hands will be readily understood.
For all of the great national fesivals and pastimes, as well as for betrothals, weddings, coming of age, promotions, farewells, times of sickness, anniversaries of death, house-warmings, tea ceremonials, and other occasions, there are clear precepts governing the arrangement of flowers.
As an example of the appositeness and grace of sentiment embodied in some of these, I cannot refrain from quoting the brief injunctions as to flowers for old-age celebrations: - "Old moss-clad branches, flowers late in season, and second flowerings are suited to such occasions.
Withered branches, and flowers which are faded or failing, must on no account be used."
But not to dwell longer on these aspects of the art, which in the main have a more or less exclusively local colouring, the broad and inevitable conclusion from Mr, Conder's revelations which most direclty concerns the people of the Occident is that in the whole cult and poetry of domesic floral arrangement Japan is head and shoulders above the rest of the world.
A Japanese critic has well said of Mr.Conder's book that in treating an art subject its author has himself given us a work of art.
To this it may be added that he has opened up a realm the very existence of which was well-nigh unknown, and has expounded one of the most remarkable accomplishments that the whole East has to offer.
Founded as it is on the principle of fidelity to nature, the flower art of the Japanese can never die, but, rather, is assuredly destined to serve as a model for other countries.
From Mr. Conder's exhaustive work alone great practical lessons may be learned; and the introdction of the system which it teaches into, for example, some of the chief art schools of Great Britain - especially if supplemented, as it might very well be, by the services of a small corps of Japanese flower artists themselves, provided with all the appurtenances of their craft-would soon serve to sap the crudities of our present methods, and to replace them gradually by all that is pure and beautiful in one of the most potent refining factors of domestic life.
It would also inculcate the close study of flowers and their ways, the love of nature and art, and perhaps even some of the higher attributes that are claimed for devotees of the floral cult in Japan.
"A religious spirit," Mr. Conder tells us, "self-denial, gentleness, and forgetfulness of cares are among the virtues said to follow from the habitual practice of the art of arranging flowers."
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