Decorated initial I from 1878 Art-Journal

N the series of articles which has recently appeared in this Journal on Japanese Art frequent reference will be found to one element, underlying all Japanese work as a governing principle—variety. That love of variety and novelty which is common to the human race has been cultivated and developed among this people until it has become almost a passion, giving shape and character to all their Art. Of the thousands of cheap fans now scattered over Europe, I doubt whether any two would be found exactly alike. In this distinguishing feature of their work the artists of Japan have gone to Nature for their inspiration; and as it is mainly to these two sources, their love of Nature and their love of variety, that Japanese Art owes much of its excellence, as well as its charm and originality, the object they proposed to themselves and the means they have taken to attain it seem worthy of further study and a separate chapter.

I think it will be seen that the true secret of their unrivalled success in those branches of Art to which they have devoted themselves is to be found in their loving and patient study of all the processes in Nature—in other words, the methods by which, in the realms of Nature, the greatest variety is secured, and the nature of those lines and combinations which, as Hogarth observed, seem to raise in the mind the ideas of all the variety of forms imaginable. By a natural instinct or intuitive love for that variety which is only seen in its greatest perfection in Nature, and underlies all excellence in Art by the share it has in producing beauty, the Japanese have gone to the ornamental part of Nature's great treasure-house—to the forms and colours of plants, flowers, leaves, the painting of butterflies' wings, the skins of animals, the plumage of birds, and markings of shells, in a word, to all that constitutes the glory and the beauty of the visible world, and ministers with never-failing and lavish bounty to the sense of beauty, of harmony, and grace. Hogarth was right in asserting that the principles are in Nature by which we are guided in determining what is truly beautiful or graceful and excellent in Art. They went, therefore, to the fountain-head in going to Nature and there reverently watching and studying at her feet all the processes by which such infinite variety and beauty were unfailingly evolved. It followed naturally that in this admiration of Nature's works, in which beauty and variety are the leading and characteristic features, they would imbibe a corresponding aversion to sameness and a too great unformity or regularity, which they nowhere found in Nature. An exact repetition of equal parts without variation—or equal division of lines and spaces—becomes to them something utterly distasteful, as a violation of the principles and order of Nature. To avoid any such appearance, even when the symmetry and orderly plan on which plants and flowers are constructed and the object of utility and adaptation to a purpose enforced regularity, they followed the subtle devices and secret processes they observed in Nature, by which the regularity of skeleton or ground plan is effectually concealed.

To these matters I referred generally in the first article of the series,* as giving a key to the artistic excellence of the Japanese. But the subject is well worthy of more minute study and a greater elaboration, in order to show what those processes in Nature are from which the Japanese have derived their cunning in every kind of Art-industry, and how naturally the observation of the one has led to the other. The prevalence of order, method, and design in the constructive processes giving form to the various products of the vegetable kingdom, could not long have escaped such close observers. What they first noticed and admired was, no doubt, the endless variety and constant beauty of Nature's works, and the absence of formality and all appearance of regularity or monotony. Yet, behind this apparent freedom and wantonness of growth, they would in time discover that a rigid adherence to an orderly plan of a geometric character or pattern was one of the conditions of this infinite variety of beautiful forms. Whether they attained to a knowledge that geometrical and arithmetic proportions govern the material universe, and are to be traced as clearly in the graceful flower or stately tree as in the crystallization of minerals or the orbits of the stars, may be very doubtful. Nor was it needful for their purpose. It was enough for them to discover the existence of a general plan and a fixed order of development amidst all the variety they admired, and to discern how the two could be combined. This must soon have led them to perceive that, although Nature builds up plants and animals each upon a regular plan, she takes infinite pains to disguise such regularity under an appearance of freedom, and has many devices for concealing from the eye the skeleton, with all its rigidity of mathematical and geometrical proportions. When they had advanced thus far they had an endless field before them, rich in every kind of suggestive motives for the perfection of the decorative art; and they have profited by such teaching.

An orderly plan of geometric proportions and definite pattern as a basis, the constant repetition of similar parts in a fixed order of succession and alternation, being given to them as the chief elements of all Nature's exhaustless beauty and variety, the Japanese artist has so well profited by his lessons that, although variety has become the distinguishing character of his work, he never fails in symmetry, though his idea of what constitutes symmetry and the best mode of securing it is widely different from any that has prevailed as a general rule in the Western world.

This is itself a subject of so much interest that in order to give it fuller development I must trust to the indulgence of my readers while I offer some considerations drawn rather from the field of physiology and anatomical botany than what is more generally associated with the domain of Art. I recently met with a posthumous volume of " Miscellanies," by the late Dr. John Addington Symonds, published in 1871 by his son, in which there is a lecture " On the Principles of Beauty," delivered to a society at Bristol; and it is so full of pregnant truths in connection with Art and the principles which flow from the constitution of man and the structure of the eye and brain, that I would fain hope it may become better known. He seems to have been one of those men of whose general culture and love of Art, superadded to his professional knowledge of the human frame, the medical profession has more than one representative at the present day. All who are familiar with the works of Sir Henry Thompson, often to be seen on the walls of the British Institution of Water Colours, and with the etchings from Nature of Mr. Haden, which are among the best specimens of modern Art, will recognise the value of such a combination of the two pursuits and objects of study. I trust the following extracts and resume of some of the facts and conclusions bearing on the subject more immediately under consideration may tend to direct attention to the whole lecture.

Speaking of variety as a source of beauty, as well as the pleasure derived from similarity, Dr. Symonds remarks that "The delight in new impressions, the sense of change and of action, this is what may be considered the most popular kind of beauty. For the appreciation of symmetry, a certain amount of culture is needful, but new colours and unaccustomed forms may at once attract attention, and impart pleasure to the most simple and uneducated minds. Under the operation of agencies which bring such novelties and varieties the mind has a consciousness of pleasant activity analogous to the enjoyment of muscular exercise. It is this ministration which accounts for most of the pleasure produced by natural scenery, in the ever-changing effects of light and shade and colour, and the endless diversities of form in flowers, shrubs, and trees, and in the animated tribes which people the scenes of beauty. And yet in all these objects it is to be noted, that though variety is a prevailing element, yet there is a large admixture of similarity. The similarity of the leaves to each other, and the uniformity of their prevailing colour in a tree, is accompanied by a constant change of branches, boughs, and twigs, whatever hidden regularity there may be in the intervals of division and angles of divarication. How these all combine, under a definite order, to give the effect of mere wanton profusion and careless grace, is Nature's secret, in which lies 'the hidden soul of harmony.' " *

Again, he observes, "In natural objects, where there is the greatest apparent diversity, it is easy to trace the law of uniformity. In foliage there is not only the general likeness of the leaves and branches, but the direction or the relative position of the leaves and branches is in a great measure uniform. There is a sense of symmetry in the midst of all the seeming complexity of parts. So in the grouping of human figures in a picture, where variety of lines and forms is most natural, it will be found that the arrangement is most pleasing to the eye when, without formality, there is a certain degree of symmetry, as when one side of the picture somewhat corresponds to the other without conspicuously balancing it. A parallelism which docs not strike the eye, and yet may be traced in the direction of the limbs, the figure of a pyramid, or an ellipse, or a rectangle, by the eye looking for it, though it does not in the least approach to actual definition—such arrangements, by a virtual conformity to symmetry, without any marked appearance of it, give unquestionable pleasure to our sight." Continuing the analysis, he observes, "The pleasure derived from similarity enters largely into the beauty of symmetry. This side is like that. This curve corresponds to that. And it * See "Miscellanies," article "Principles of Beauty," by Dr. John Addington Symonds, M.D. London, Macmillan &. Co. i871. is like with a difference, the difference being in place or material (idem in alio). Similarity enlivened by difference, variety restrained by unity, may be found in all the arrangements of light and shade, form and colour and sound, which are most pleasing to the eye and to the ear;" but all sudden and abrupt changes of sensation, as he further explains, are displeasing, and thus continuity is an element in agreeable movements of the body as well as in pleasant sensations. Hence the influence of similarity and variety and continuity may be traced in the beauty which belongs to simple lines, and quite apart from all collateral suggestions; but still more in a curved line, because that presents both continuity and variety in a manner agreeable to the sensation of sight, and calling forth an agreeable exercise of the muscles of the eye. But some curves are more pleasant than others. The circle is less agreeable than the ellipse, and the simple ellipse than the ovoid or composite ellipse. In the circle there is a constant change of direction, but every change is like its predecessor, and the general appearance is excess of uniformity, or monotony. In the ellipse the change of direction is more gradual, and the figure admits of division by the eye without diameters into opposites which are similar and symmetrical. The ovoid is still more beautiful, from the yet greater variety of direction, with perfect facility of gradation. But apart from the course of the line, there is an impression on the sense by the enclosed space. The circle is always the same in , form, however different in size, the radii being equal. The ellipse, on the other hand, is in its nature variable, and is at once recognised as such. It suggests a form which may vary almost indefinitely by the varying proportions between its major and minor axis.

Dr. Symonds, speaking further of sensational beauty and its sources, remarks that "The beauty of form may be perceived and delighted in without any knowledge of its source; but there must be a certain organization of the sensorium to this effect. As it is a well known fact that some persons are insusceptible to the enjoyment of the more complex forms of harmony of sound, so there are subtleties of symmetry beyond the range of ordinary perception. There are individuals who have not the aesthetical constitution which would enable them to recognise and enjoy the exquisite proportions of the Venus of Milos or the portico of the Parthenon, just as others are dead to the harmonies of Beethoven."

The truth of these observations and their significance, as affording an insight into the physiological laws governing our perception of symmetry and all the other elements constituting Art, are very striking. I will show farther 011, that the Japanese ideas of symmetry,. while differing so essentially from our own, are entirely in harmony with the processes by which Nature in many instances meets the exigencies of symmetry, by the balance of corresponding, but unequal or more or less dissimilar parts, which is the principle underlying the Japanese practice. But before leaving Dr. Symonds's most suggestive lecture, I must give one more extract. Returning to the effect of variety on the mind and the condition attaching to its full enjoyment, "There is a pleasure," he says, "resulting from the mere novelty of a sensation, but if there is nothing in the impression but its novelty to afford pleasure the enjoyment soon ceases. Nature, however, is so rich, and Art so fertile, that this source of pleasure never fails, and it meets us under the form of what we call variety. Besides variety and continuity, there is another circumstance under which sensation gives pleasure, viz., similarity. Repetition is agreeable, but mere likeness, without difference, becomes distasteful sameness or dull uniformity; just as mere variety, without likeness, would be intolerable; for in this case there would be a number of isolated experiences without any connection, and the perception of relations is one of the deepest wants of our nature." Thus distinctly may we trace, in strict accordance with the principles exemplified in Nature, and the physiological laws of our constitution, all the more striking and characteristic elements in Japanese Art. It remains now to show the processes in Nature, more particularly in the growth of plants, by which, out of a few very simple elementary parts, boundless variety and perfect symmetry are secured, with an entire absence of monotony or appearance of formality and regularity—a combination which gives a charm to every landscape and to each individual and component part.

Repetition of like parts—but likeness with a difference—and change or variety, with a certain continuity, we thus see are essential elements in Nature's inexhaustible powers of charming with novelty. But behind this there is yet another secret, and that is, the ease with which the geometric proportions and regularity of plan, on which trees and plants and flowers of every kind are built up, is concealed. To this hiding and perfect concealment of an orderly plan Japanese Art, like Nature, is indebted mainly for its attraction. Nature never repeats herself; however multitudinous her creations, they are never absolutely and precisely alike. No two trees or flowers, not even two leaves of the same, are without a difference, however small. The Japanese artist, at a very early period, seems to have seized upon this great characteristic of all Nature's works, and adopted it for his guiding principle. But this residuary element of variety was only the last of a series of effects and processes leading up to it. Mere repetition of similar forms would not obviously suffice. There must be some further secret of arrangement, method of growth, or combination of parts, to secure not only a pleasing variety, but the grace, the harmony, and unfailing beauty of the vegetable kingdom. The foliage of a tree and the petals of a flower, however confused and complex to the eye, each have a regulated place and order, and the beauty and grace of the whole are essentially dependent upon this order being rigorously adhered to. Nothing looks so remote from this as the aspect of Nature, in whatever direction we turn our gaze throughout the universe. The stars which seem to powder the blue vault above, as though scattered broadcast like dust from the hand, have all their place and orbits fixed with such geometric proportions and mathematical nicety that astronomers can calculate their distances and respective influences, even to the small aberrations permitted within their fixed orbits. As in the heavens, so on the earth. Everywhere law—not license—order, method, and design prevail; not chance, or the negation of any of these conditions.

These things, so obvious to us and unquestionable, have not in all ages been revealed to man's inquiring nature, though no doubt they have been more or less clearly accepted as fundamental truths, while the actual processes by which such laws were made operative must, to a great degree, have been hidden until quite recent times. Those processes by which the human frame was built up and its growth regulated, by which plants and flowers were developed from the seed, the stem, and the leaf, were a closed book until anatomy and physiology traced them out. Without such help it would appear that the Japanese, moved by an equal love of Nature and of Art, must have gone far to divine, if not to demonstrate, the secret of Nature's inexhaustible variety and never-failing beauty. They desired with their whole heart to exercise their imitative and creative faculties in reproducing these, in a form less evanescent, and more especially adapted to their own use in all the offices and occupations of daily life; and they went to Nature for the needful instruction.

The processes by which in the floral world the orderly plan of growth and construction are disguised, and, as a rule, so effectually hid that only a patient scrutiny and dissection of all the parts of a plant could lay them bare, would naturally be the first object of research. And these once mastered, little remained but to apply the fruitful knowledge thus obtained at Nature's source. Probably it might not be immediately obvious that the mere imitation of what they found in Nature would not suffice. As with the Egyptians the lotus, with the Greeks the anthemion, and with the Romans the acanthus, a conventional adaptation is needed to create a decorative effect. In a word, as Mr. Fergusson so well expresses it in his last great work on "Architecture in all Countries," "we ought always to copy the processes and never the forms of Nature." * And so, in applying the subtle devices by which any formality in flowers and * See" History of Architecture in all Countries." Chapter xii: "Imitation of Nature." plants is hid, all they had to do was to apply the principle and not the actual forms.

Believing that the extent to which Japanese Art is indebted for its charm to these successful applications of Nature's processes designed to hide the existence of an orderly plan has never hitherto been appreciated, I will now show how Nature proceeds to effect the purpose which the Japanese, in humble imitation, have so lovingly and persistently kept before them and made their governing principle.

First as to symmetry; and as one example how this is preserved by Nature in flowers by a certain balance of corresponding but unlike parts, we may take, from the family of orchids, with all their quaint and fantastic developments, the Odontata glossum Insleayi (Fig. i). We see in it an example of inequality and dissimilarity, both in the tigerlike markings and in the number and form of the component parts of the flower. The petals are two, and striped on each side with unequal lines and spots; the sepals are three, also unequally striped and spotted; and the lip forms a fourth unit, all arranged in a circle round the column, carpels, &c., in the centre of brightest golden hue, while the other parts are tints of yellow and brown. The symmetry is preserved by a balance of unequal parts and odd numbers.

Related Material


Alcock, Sir Rutherford. “Japanese Art.” Art Journal (1878): 77-80. Hathi Trust Digital Library version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 14 August 2013.

Last modified 6 September 2013