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THE Ashikaga period is named from that branch of the Minamoto family who succeeded to the Shogunate. It sounds, natural outcome as it is of Kamakura hero-worship, the true note of modern art, Romanticism in its literary sense.
The conquest of Matter by the Spirit has bcen always the purpose of the striving of world-forces, and each stage of culture is marked, alike in East and West, by an intensifying of the attitude of triumph. The three terms by which European scholars love to distinguish the past development of art, though lacking perhaps in precision, have nevertheless an inevitable truth, since the fundamental law of life and progress underlies not only the history of art as a whole, but also the appearance and growth of individual artists and their schools.
The East has had its own form of that period called Symbolic, or better still, perhaps, Formalistic, when matter, or the law of material form, dominates the spiritual in art. The Egyptian and Assyrian sought by immense stones to express grandeur, as the Indian worker by his innumerable repetitions to utter forth infinity in his creations. Similarly, the Chinese mind of the Shu and Hang dynasties pursued sublime effects in their long walls, and in the intricately subtle lines which they produced in bronze. The first period of Japanese art, from its birth to the beginning of the Nara era, however imbued with the purest ideal of the first Northern development of Buddhism, still falls into this group, by making form and formalistic beauty the foundation of artistic excellence.
Next comes the so-called Classic period when beauty is sought as the union of spirit and matter. To this impulse, Greek Pantheistic philosophy in all its phases devotes itself, and the works of the Parthenon with the immortal stones of Phidias and Praxiteles, are its purest expression. This phase is manifested in the East also as the second school of Northern Buddhism.
Here we have an objective idealism, which reaches its height, under the influence of the India of the Guptas, during the Tang dynasty and the Nara period, and is destined to be hardened into the concrete cosmology of the Esoteric pantheon. The kinship between Japanese work of this period and that of the Greco-Romans is due to the fundamental resemblance of its mental environment to that of the classic nations of the West.
But individualism, the underlying fire of modern life and speculation, was only waiting to leap through the classic crust and flame up once for all into the freedom of the spirit. Spirit must conquer Matter, and though the differing idiosyncrasies of the Occidental and the Oriental mind lead to differing expression, the modern idea of the whole world runs inevitably to Romanticism. The Latin and Teutonic races, from their hereditary instincts and political positions, went forth to seek the Romantistic ideal objectively and Materialistically; whereas the later Chinese mind, as represented by the Neo-Confucians, and the Japanese since the days of Ashikaga, steeped as it were in the spiritual essence of Indian, and imbued with the harmonistic communism of Confucian thought, approached the problem from a subjective and idealistic standpoint.
The Neo-Confucian influence of China, which ripened later under the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960-1280), was an amalgamation of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian thought, acting chiefly, however, through the Taoist mind, as shown in Chimpaku, that Taoist philosopher at the close of the Tâng dynasty, who made a single diagram to represent the universe according to all these systems at once. We come now upon the new interpretations of the two principles of the Cosmos, the male and female, with stress laid for the. first time upon the latter, as the alone-active. This corresponds to the Indian notion of the Sakti, and was developed by Neo-Confucian thinkers as their theory of Ri and Ki, the all pervading Law, and the working Spirit. Thus all Asiatic philosophy, from Sankaracharya downwards, turns on the moving power of the universe.
Another tendency of the Taoist mind is the flight from man to nature. This is a consequence of the fact that we seek expression in opposites. This innate love of nature imposes a limitation on the Ashikaga art, which devotes itself too exclusively to landscapes, birds, and flowers. Thus Neo-Confucianism in China consists of the Confucian justification of all, plus the new spirit of individualism, and it culminates in the revival of the polity of Shu with a deepened modern significance.
It is a proof of the reality of the individualism of the epoch that the movement is succeeded by the rise of great political parties in the empire, thus weakening China against her next Tartar invasion, which resulted in the Mongol dynasty of Gen (A.D. 1280-1368).
Japanese art ever since the days of the Ashikaga masters, though subjected to slight degeneration in the Toyotomi and Tokugawa periods, has held steadily to the Oriental Romantistic ideal — that is to say, the expression of the Spirit as the highest effort in art. This spirituality, with us, was not the ascetic purism of the early Christian fathers, nor yet the allegorical idealisation of the pseudo-renaissance. It was neither a mannerism, nor a self-restraint. Spirituality was conceived as the essence or life of a thing, the characterisation of the soul of things, a burning fire within.
Beauty was the vital principle that pervaded the universe — sparkling in the light of the stars, in the glow of the flowers, in the motion of a passing cloud, or the movements of the flowing water. The great World-soul permeated men and nature alike, and by contemplation of the world-life expanded before us; in the wonderful phenomena of existence, might be found the mirror in which the artistic mind could reflect itself. Thus the art of Ashikaga bears an entirely different aspect from the productions of the two preceding phases. It is not replete and harmonious, like the formalistic beauty of the Hâng bronzes or the mirrors of the Six Dynasties, nor is it full of that calm pathos and emotional repose which we find in the statues of the Sangatsude of Nara and the finished glory and refined ideality of the Genshin's Angels of Koyasan, yet it impresses one with a directness and unity which cannot be found in these earlier creations. It is mind speaking to mind, a mind strong and self-refusing — unmoved, because it is so simple.
That identity of mind and matter which had been the evolving and culminating ideal of the pre-Fugiwara periods of Japanese art always means repose. It is the centripetal effort of the imagination. But the latent energy breaks forth anew. Life reasserts itself in the centrifugal impulse. Strange new types create themselves. Individuality becomes rich in its variety and strength. The first expression is always in emotion, the Bhakti of Indian thought, as we see it in the love-stories and poems of Europe, and in the religious developments of the Fugiwara epoch. Later, as here in the Ashikaga period, we have the higher phase, in that realisation of the sum of things as the act of our own will which in India is called Gnan, or "insight."
The Ashikaga ideal owes its origin to the Zen sect of Buddhism, which became predominant during the Kamakura period. Zen, from the word Dhyan, meaning meditation in supreme repose, was introduced into China through Bodhi Dharma, an Indian prince who reached that country as a monk in A. D. 520. But it had first to assimilate Laoist ideas, before it could be naturalised on Celestial soil, and in this form it made its advent, towards the end of the Tâng dynasty. The doctrines of Baso and Rinzai are clearly demarcated from those of the early exponents of this school. Zenism, therefore, was a development, and the inheritance which it left to be handed down by the Kamakura and Ashikaga monks was the Southern, differing greatly from the Northern Zen, which latter adhered still to the form that had been taught by the early patriarchs of the sect. For by this time the idea had become nothing less than a school of individualism. Under its inspiration, the militant heroes of Kamakura were as the spiritual heroes of the church — Alexander stood transformed as Ignatius Loyola. The idea of conquest was completely orientalised, in passing from that which is without to that which is within a man himself. Not to use the sword, but to be the sword — pure, serene, immovable, pointing ever to the polar star — was the ideal of the Ashikaga knight. Everything was sought in the soul, as a means of freeing thought from the fetters in which all forms of knowledge tended to enchain it. Zenism was even iconoclastic, in the sense of ignoring forms and rituals, for Buddhist images were cast into the fire by the Zen who obtained enlightenment. Words were considered an encumbrance to thought, and the Zenistic doctrines were set forth in broken sentences and powerful metaphor, to the great disparagement of the studied language of the Chinese literati.
The human soul, to these thinkers, was itself the Buddahood in which the universal, as manifested in the particular, became resplendent with that original glory which had been lost through the long night of ignorance and so-called human knowledge. By freeing thought from the trammels of mistaken categories true enlightenment was to be attained.
Thus their training was centred on the methods of that self-control which is the essence of true freedom. Deluded human minds groped in darkness, because they mistook the attribute for the substance. Even religious teachings were misleading, in so far as they set up semblances for realities. This thought was often illustrated by the simile of monkeys attempting to seize the reflection of the moon in water; for each effort to snatch at the silvery image could but ruffle the mirroring surface, and end in destroying not only the phantom moon, but also themselves. The elaborate sûtras of the so-called eighty-four thousand gates of knowledge were like 'the meaningless chatter of the apish scholars. Freedom, once attained, left all men to revel and glory in the beauties of the whole universe. They were then one with nature, whose pulse they felt beating simultaneously within themselves, whose breath they felt themselves inhaling and exhaling in union with the great world-spirit. Life was microcosmic and macrocosmic at once. Life and death alike but phases of the one existence universal.
They loved also to portray the progress of a Zen student as a cowherd in search of a lost charge. For man through ignorance is bereft of his soul, and, like the cowherd, once roused for the search, he trudges on in the almost imperceptible footprints, till he discovers first the tail and then the body of that which he seeks. Next ensues the struggle for mastery — a fierce combat and terrible warfare between the mundane senses and the inner light. The herdsman conquers, and, seated on the back of the now docile animal, goes serenely on his way, playing a simple melody on the flute — thus he forgets himself and the beast. To him day is sweet, with its green willows and crimson flowers. These vanish again, and he delights to move about in the pure moonlight, where at once he is and yet is not. Thus, to Zen thinking, victories over the inner self are more true than the austere penances of the mediæval hermit, who tormented his flesh instead of disciplining his mind. The body is a crystal vessel, through which the rainbow -of the Great Existence is to shine. The mind is like a great lake, clear to its bottom, reflecting the clouds that hover over it, sometimes ruffled by winds which make it foam and rage, but only to settle down into the original calm, never losing its purity, or its own nature. The world is full of a pathos of existence which is yet merely incidental, and one must battle and war with serenity and imperturbability, as if going to a bridal feast. Life and art, as influenced by these teachings, wrought changes in Japanese habits which have now become a second nature. Our etiquette begins with learning how to offer a fan, and ends with the rites for committing suicide. The very tea-ceremony is made expressive of Zen ideas.
The Ashikaga aristocracy, exquisites in their own way, worked, like their Fujiwara ancestors, from the notion of luxury to that of refinement. They loved to live in thatched cottages, as simple in appearance as those of the meanest peasant, yet whose proportions were designed by the highest genius of Shojo or Soami, whose pillars were of the costliest incense-wood from the farthest Indian islands; even whose iron kettles were marvels of workmanship, designed by Sesshu. Beauty, said they, or the life of things, is always deeper as hidden within than as outwardly expressed, even as the life of the universe beats always underneath incidental appearances. Not to display, but to suggest, is the secret of infinity. Perfection, like all maturity, fails to impress, because of its limitation of growth.
Thus it would be their joy to ornament an ink-box, for instance, with simple lacquering on the outside, and in its hidden parts with costly gold-work. The tea-room would be decorated with a single picture or a simple flower-vase, to give it unity and concentration, and all the riches of the daimyo's collections would be kept in his treasure-house, whence each was brought out in turn to serve in the satisfaction of some æsthetic impulse. Even to the present day the people wear their costliest stuffs for under-garments, as the Samurai prided themselves on keeping wonderful sword-blades within unpretentious scabbards. That law of change which is the guiding thread of life is also the law which governs beauty. Virility and activity were necessary in order to make an everlasting impression; but leaving to the imagination to suggest to itself the completion of an idea was essential to all forms of artistic expression, for thus was the spectator made one with the artist. The uncovered silken end of a great masterpiece is often more replete with meaning than the painted part itself.
The Sung dynasty was a great age of art and art-criticism. Their painters, especially from the time of Emperor Kiso, in the twelfth century, himself a great artist and a patron, had shown some appreciation of this spirit, as we see in Bayen and Kakei, in Mokkei and Riokai, whose small works express vast ideas. But it required the artists of Ashikaga, representing the Indian trend of the Japanese mind released from Confucian formalism, to absorb the Zen idea in all its intensity and purity. They were all Zen priests, or laymen who lived almost like monks. The natural tendency of artistic form under this influence was pure, solemn, and full of simplicity.
The strong, high-toned drawing and colouring, and the delicate curves of Fujiwara and Kamakura, were now discarded for simple ink-sketches and a few bold lines — just as they discarded their graceful robes, assuming huge stiff trousers in their place — for the new idea was to divest art of foreign elements, and to make expression as simple and direct as possible. Ink-painting, an innovation begun at the close of the Kamakura period, now supersedes colour in importance.
A painting, which is a universe in itself, must conform to the laws that govern all existence. Composition is like the creation of the world, holding in itself the constructive laws that give it life. Thus a great work by Sesshu or Sesson is not a depictment of nature, but an essay on nature; to them there is neither high nor low, neither noble nor refined. A picture of the goddess Kwannon, or of Sakya, will be no more important a subject than a painting of a single flower or a spray of bamboo. Each stroke has its moment of life and death; all together assist to interpret an idea, which is life within life.
The two most prominent artists of this period are, undoubtedly, these masters, though the way was paved for them by Shiubun, noted for his landscapes and juicy ink touches.
Jasoku is another, whose vigour of stroke and compact composition are almost unequalled.
Sesshu owes his position to that directness and self-control so typical of the Zen mind. Face to face with his paintings, we learn the security and calm which no other artist ever gives.
To Sesson, on the other hand, belong the freedom, ease, and playfulness which constituted another essential trait of the Zen ideal. It is as if to him the whole of experience were but a pastime, and his strong soul could take delight in all the exuberance of virile nature.
Hosts of others follow in the wake of these — Noami, Gaiami, Soami, Sotan, Keishoki, Masanobu, Motonobu, and a galaxy of illustrious names fill this period, which is unparalleled by any other. For the Ashikaga Shoguns were great patrons of art, and the life of the age was conducive to culture and refinement.
But it is impossible to pass from the consideration of the Ashikaga era without some reference to its development of music, for nothing is so indicative of the spirituality of an art-impulse, and it is during the Ashikaga period that our national music emerges in its maturity.
Before this, except for the simple old songs of the people, we had only that Bugaku music of the latter part of the Six Dynasties, which, while derived from India and China, is yet so closely akin to the Greek. And this is natural, since all alike must have been but off-shoots from the common stem of early Asiatic song and melody. This Bugaku music has never been forgotten. We can still hear it played in Japan in the old costumes, to the old steps, thanks to its preservation by a hereditary caste. It has now grown, perhaps, a little mechanical and expressionless, but the Hymn to Apollo could still be played in its own mode by the Bugaku musicians.
True to the needs of a military age, the Kamakura period produced the Bards, who sang epic ballads of the glory of the heroes. The masquerades of the Fujiwara epoch also found dramatic development later, in representations of Hell, given in recitative to a simple accompaniment. These two elements gradually fused and became permeated by the historic spirit, so giving birth, towards the opening of the Ashikaga period, to those No-dances, which are likely, from their consecration to great national themes of struggle and event, to remain always one of the strongest elements in Japanese music and drama.
The stage on which the No-dance is performed is made of hard, unpainted wood, with a single pine tree somewhat conventionally portrayed on the background. Thus is suggested a grand monotony. The main parts are three in number, the small chorus and orchestra being seated on the stage at one side. Masks are worn by the chief players — who might almost better be termed tellers — and assist in the general idealisation. The poem deals with historical subjects, always interpreting them through Buddhist ideas. The standard of excellence is an infinite suggestiveness, naturalism the one thing to be condemned.
Under these conditions, relieved only by slight comic interludes, an audience will sit spell-bound through a whole day. The short epic drama that composes the No-dance is full of semi-articulate sounds. The soughing of the wind amongst the pine boughs, the dropping of water, or the tolling of distant bells, the stifling of sobs, the clash and clang of war, echoes of the weavers beating the new web against the wooden beam, the cry of the crickets, and all those manifold voices of night and nature, where pause is more significant than pitch, are there. Such dim utterances, echoed from the eternal melody of silence, may seem to the ignorant curious or barbaric. But there can be little doubt that they constitute the insignia of a great art. They never allow us to forget for a moment that the No-dance is a direct appeal from mind to mind, a mode by which unspoken thought is borne from behind the actor to that unhearing and unheard intelligence that broods within the heart of him who listens.