The Japanese Metal Artist

It has been asserted that the extraordinary labor of mind and hand lavished by the Japanese artist upon objects the biggest of which can be enclosed within a circle of three inch diameter, justifies the criticism that he belonged to a nation great in little things and little in great things. He should not be accused of moral smallness because he applied himself to the production of tiny ornaments. Whatever quality of mind this fact indicates, it is indisputable that the Japanese artist or art-artisan is the most conscientious in the world. He loves to expend the finest and most patient effort upon the least conspicuous portions of the object he ornaments, partly because loyalty to his art dictates such a sacrifice of labor, and partly because he thus enters a kind of noble protest against any suspicion of decorative ostentation which the beauty and richness of his work might otherwise suggest. That habit of craftsmanship is well illustrated in sword-furniture. The delicacy of chiselling and infinitely careful finish bestowed on every detail delight the connoisseur as much as they astonish him. The student of these beautiful creations finds that Japanese artists have exercised their proper latitude of motives and methods. The carver of sword furniture did, in fact, make 'pictures' in metal; that is to say, pictures within the limitations found applicable to all Japanese pictoral art.

One naturally supposes that men like Joi, Somin, Toshihisa, Yasuchika, and other masters, who, by giving birth to a 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 greedy 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 becomes 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 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 a 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 bring a high price, the profit to him is not as great as that accruing from inferior work quickly executed and cheaply sold. A great artist is insulted when the price of his work is discussed: it should be above price. 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.

The nobility that gives greatness to an artist's efforts, the quality that brings genuine success to the trader, the appreciation that enables us to aquire fine objects of virtue, these things are inaccessible unless the mind is set upon a high ideal. Sometimes valuable masterpieces are found among specimens supposed to be common, and a fortunate discovery is called "unearthing a treasure". The discoverer flaunts it, but if he had true elevation of mind and refinement of taste, he would be above such trifling.


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