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Japanese Flower Arrangement

( Originally Published 1923 )



Japanese Flower Arrangement
Flower arrangement as practiced in Japan has characters so definite and so pronounced that it seems necessary to discuss the principles that govern their arrangement, that we may, to a certain extent, follow the principles, if not the methods, of Japan in the arrangement of flowers in America.

Josiah Conder, for many years professor of architecture and architect to the Imperial Japanese Government, wrote a very valuable book, "The Flowers of Japan and the Art of Floral Arrangement." This book and the lectures given at Cornell by Miss Kichi Harada, lecturer on Japanese Art at Columbia University, form the basis of the thought here presented. Miss Harada tells us that: "The art of floral arrangement in Japan has developed through centuries. It started with our devotions to the Goddess of the Sun. At first just green branches from tiny trees were brought before the Goddess and offered up with a prayer, without any idea of artistic arrangement. Tradition was followed without principles or a background. The use of flowers was extended to other gods and goddesses, and the flowers and their beauty pleased them. The courtesy then came to be extended to our parents, next to our friends. The art of flower arrangement came to be studied, and in the 15th century when all arts in Japan reached their golden age, flower arrangement reached its height of perfection. Flowers are now intimately associated with the daily life of my people, and we see in them much that is symbolic of the development of our race. The common flowers of the seasons are given prominent places in our fête day calendar. We treasure them as heralds of each season and they are inseparable from the favorite occupations and outdoor life of my people."

It is rarely that an American would care to have flowers arranged in characteristically Japanese manner. The setting has much to do with the value of a flower arrangement. There are few rooms in American homes and but few occasions where distinctly Japanese flower arrangements would be appropriate. The peculiar atmosphere of the Far East is necessary for an interesting harmony between the flower arrangements and their environment. Flowers arranged in distinctly Japanese style would be as much out of place for a dinner in an aristocratic Washington home, as would one of farm produce or woodland material. Japanese furniture, draperies, lights and table service are needed to make such a decoration appropriate and harmonious.

There are, however, many principles governing the way flowers are used by the Japanese which are valuable in American flower arrangement, and on these principles it is desired to place emphasis.

The Japanese have an intimate acquaintance with the plant material they use for decorative effects. Conder says: "The imperative necessity for a proper familiarity with the nature of all flowers used in compositions is one reason why it is forbidden to employ those of rare or little known plants, however beautiful they may be. The use of wild flowers, only known to the botanist, as well as rare or foreign flowers with the names of which ordinary folks are not familiar, is prohibited, unless the arranger has previously made himself perfectly acquainted with all the natural characteristics of such flowers. As one exponent of the art has quaintly expressed it, the artist must be thoroughly imbued with a sympathetic feeling for the character, habits, virtues and weaknesses of the members of the floral kingdom from which he seeks his material, till he possesses almost the same love and tenderness for their qualities, as for those of living beings."

The Japanese are flower lovers, but it is not the rare or unusual flower that most interests them. It is the material of everyday life which they use to the largest extent. This material varies with the season, and they do not try to force it into flower at unusual seasons with glass houses for Winter production of flowers, as is done in America. True it is that climatic conditions better favor the Japanese in this respect. Attractive native material is available every month of the year. There is no desire on the part of the writer to depreciate the value of flowers grown in greenhouses. They afford an appropriate means of ornamentation at seasons of the year when the majority of Americans could not obtain decorative material out of doors. The point to be emphasized, however, is that even though one cannot afford or cannot obtain flowers grown in greenhouses, there is still much ornamental plant life within the reach of many, especially dwellers in small towns and rural sections. An evergreen spray, a few twigs of shrubs with colored bark, a few clusters of Winter fruits from the Barberries or other Winter fruited shrubs have ornamental value.

In Japan there is a comparative scarcity of wild flowering plants in the natural landscape; therefore foliage is quite largely used as an element of decoration. Unfortunately for the American eye there is scant appreciation of beauty of plant material unless it be radiant with colored flowers.

According to Conder: "The peculiarity of treatment noticeable in the flower arrangements is closely connected with the Japanese manner of observing and enjoying floral nature. Whereas the Western amateur devotes his attention mainly to the blossoms, the Japanese lover of flowers, bestows his admiration on the whole character of the plant or tree producing them. The rugged nature of the Plum trunk with its straight, stiff shoots, or the graceful sweep of the branches of the Cherry, are to him inseparably associated with any beauty which the blossoms themselves possess. The loveliest buds and blossoms torn from their stems and crushed together in a mass with ferns or other greenery between them, convey to the Japanese mind no idea of floral art or beauty. The art under consideration is, in fact, based upon a representation, more or less conventional, of floral growth; and principally for this reason, the compositions are made to assume an open character in which the individual forms of branches, stems, leaves and flowers are all clearly expressed."

When plant material of varied character is to be arranged, the Japanese study the material to ascertain how to get the greatest value from it. This should be an important principle in American flower arrangement. Let Nature again be the teacher. In the study of botany the student seeks to learn the many varied ways in which wild flowers are arranged on the plant. This arrangement always signifies some special character. If the flowers are small and inconspicuous they are usually massed in a compact flower cluster, like the Clover. If they are large and beautiful in outline, they are solitary or in small clusters as in the Rose. In artificial arrangement these teachings of Nature should be observed for the most pleasing effects. Daffodils arranged in mass are a spot of color. When spaced so the value of the lines of stem and foliage is apparent, their attractiveness is greatly increased. Goldenrod, with the little flowers clustered on wand-like branches, may be gathered in masses and inserted in a receptacle so there is no indication of the character of the flower-bearing stalk. However, when sufficiently spaced as to render the natural habit of the stem and flower cluster apparent, the arrangement be-comes much more interesting. Within recent years we have arrived at a better appreciation of the value of line in flower arrangement. Much instruction has come from the Japanese who have long appreciated the fact that beauty consists of more than masses of color or a con-glomerate combination of forms. We are told that a Japanese girl will spend hours arranging a single flower, working over the stem until it assumes a position that satisfies her sense of appropriateness and beauty. In a recent lecture, a Japanese student of art stated that she was once asked how she would arrange a bowl of Daffodils on the dinner table and she replied: "Bring me all the vases you have and I will show you."

Line distribution is the basis of composition in Japanese flower arrangement. The study of the directions taken by the different lines and branches gives to the flower arrangements a peculiar charm. There are no crossings or intersections of stems or branches, and if these occur the offending elements are carefully eliminated. The relation of one line to another, the proportion of one space to other spaces, and the varying lengths of stems, are all factors which require most careful consideration.

Professor Arthur W. Dow of Columbia University, in his book "Composition" says: "Spacing is the very groundwork of design. If a composition is in any sense a work of art it must have good spacing." This may refer to the arrangement of lines as well as of forms. Often a composition is uninteresting because the lines are in-correctly spaced.

As has been stated, the Japanese spend a long time selecting just the right material for a floral composition. They make a mental picture of the finished design, then go to work eliminating all material not desired in the completed composition—here a branch, there a leaf, a bud or a flower.

Quoting again from Conder: "The surface of the water in which the flowers are placed is technically considered to be the soil from which the floral growth springs, and the designer must here convey the impression of stability and strength. However good the upper lines of the composition may be, a weak springing at the base deprives it of life and vigor, for it must be remembered that not flowers alone but floral growth and vitality are to be expressed in the designs. The direction of the stems at starting need not be strictly vertical, but if curved, the curves employed should be strong ones, and all weak bends or angles should be avoided.

"In the distribution of the principal lines of the composition from the point of their separation, the artist studiously avoids an equal-sided or symmetrical arrangement, but he obtains a balance of a more subtle nature that is at the same time productive of a pleasing variety of form. Balance and harmony without repetition is a governing principle in this as well as in other Japanese arts. The lines of each stem, or in cases where numerous slender stems are combined, the central lines of each group of stems, receive first attention. The triple arrangement, by which is meant that governed by three prevailing lines, may be taken as the original model for all arrangements.

"The three lines of such a composition may be called, with sufficient fidelity to the more quaint nomenclature, principal, secondary and tertiary. The principal, as the name implies, is the central and longest line of the design and this is made to form a double curve with the upper and lower extremities nearly vertical and in a continuous line; the general shape thus assumed being that of an archer's bow. The secondary line should be about half and the tertiary line about one-quarter of the length of the principal, supposing all to be straightened out; and these two lines are arranged on different sides of the principal in graceful double curves of varied character. As a general rule, the secondary line has a more vertical and the tertiary line a more lateral tendency; the former being on the outside of the arched bow formed by the principal, and the latter making the counterpoise on its hollow side. According, as the hollow of the principal faces right or left, the arrangement is called a right or left composition. By changing the direction and giving a different character to the curves of these three lines, a great variety of design is produced.

"To produce a five-lined arrangement, two additional lines are introduced between the three previously named.

The one placed between the principal and the secondary is called the support, and the one between the principal and the tertiary is called the sub principal. The support in length and importance approaches more to the secondary than to the principal; while the sub principal as its name would imply, in length and importance approaches more the principal than the tertiary. In this way a proper lineal balance and harmony is obtained. In the seven-lined arrangements, two more extra members are added, one called the side line and the other the trunk line. Their lengths are about intermediate, the side line being placed between the support and the tertiary, and the trunk line between the sub principal and the secondary."

In the arrangement the Japanese do not place these flowers in a vertical plane; but, as Conder points out, each element in the design has a definite direction. For example, if the designer stands at a table facing North, he would arrange each element in the design with definite relation to the points of compass. This adds symmetry to the arrangement. The principal of a seven-line arrangement would point Northeast; the secondary, Southeast; the tertiary, Southwest; the sub principal, East; the support, central over the vase; the trunk line, North-east, and the side line, West. In this way a pleasing balance and harmony of line relations are obtained.

A study of the principles of Japanese flower arrangement shows that the interesting elements of their design consist in a definite placing of the material. In every arrangement there is a point of emphasis and the other units of the design have a definite relation either in size or in length of stem to the principal. Too frequently an American will throw together a large number of flowers without regard to the relation one flower bears to another.

In attending an English flower exhibition, I was impressed by the artistic arrangement of all the flowers. One exhibition of commercial varieties of Carnations was particularly artistic. The owner remarked that he could not understand how the amateur could be interested in an American exhibition of commercial Carnations or Roses, for the exhibitors at American flower shows seemed rarely to consider an artistic element in their arrangement of material. Twenty-five, fifty or one hundred Roses are put together so the buds are all of uniform height, then they are all crowded into a vase so there is no beauty in the individual; the whole is simply a mass of color and blooms. The same thing applies to arrangements of Carnations. An American exhibition of commercial varieties of Roses or Carnations is simply a representation of quality and perfection of culture. Were the flowers arranged artistically the effect would be much more pleasing.

In selecting material for flower arrangement the Japanese rarely combine many species. Combinations of two or three species is the most common. The character of the plants used is carefully studied so there is never an inappropriate combination. In regard to this Conder says: "Important distinctions are made between trees and plants, and between land and water plants. The locality of production, whether mountain, moor or river, considerably influences the arrangement adopted. In arranging two or more species in one composition, variety must be sought by combining trees and plants. In the case of three lines being used, the branches of a tree should never be `supported' on both sides by a plant, nor should a plant be placed in the center with a tree arrangement on either side. This fault is called by a term which will be better understood if freely translated as "sandwiching."

As an example of what the Japanese would consider a defective arrangement may be taken a composition of Philadelphus (shrub) in the center, and Canterbury Bells Campanula Medium and Astilbe (herbs) on either side. A correct composition would be one with Deutzia(shrub) in the center, with Kalmia (shrub) on one side and Campanula (herb) on the other. (See illustrations, pages 57 and 59.)

The Japanese recognize many errors in combinations of plants and in the placing of the material in receptacles. For instance, the regular spacing of flowers of quite uniform size, one above the other is called "flower step-ping." The arrangement of Papaver orientale illustrates this. Another error is to place a flower of one color between two of another color. This is also called "sandwiching." "Dew-dropping" is the use of a leaf so weak in the stem that it assumes a wilted appearance and could not support a drop of water. "Equal ranging" is placing flowers at equal heights. (See illustration of Spanish Iris, page 67.)

It is also considered objectionable for one branch to intersect another. All twigs which so cross in the line of vision are carefully cut out. This is called "cross-cutting." See illustration of Papaver orientale, page 65. "View-cutting" is the crossing of a twig with the main trunk of the branch. This, however, is allowed in arranging Plum Blossoms, for such a crossing is characteristic of the growth of the species. "Parallelism" occurs when two adjacent stems or branches are exactly parallel to each other. There are several other objectionable features in arrangement, recognized by the Japanese, but the ones cited are features particularly objectionable in any arrangement of flowers.

There are other features described by Conder, which, if observed by Americans in their arrangement of flowers, would add much to the interest of any composition by creating variety and eliminating monotony: "Three distinct characters are observed both in flowers and leaves. In flowers there are the full blossoms, the half-open blossoms and the buds; and in leaves, the young green leaf, the full leaf, and the reddening or falling leaf. In flower arrangements with one material, as for example, the Cherry or Peach blossoms, a different character of blossom is selected for the chief lines of the composition. For the principal, full blown flowers will be used; for the secondary, half-open flowers; and for the tertiary, buds are employed. Some designers, on the principle that the half open flower is more powerful than the full-blown blossom, use the half-open flowers for the principal and the full-blown blossoms for the secondary. Straight leaves are considered strong and curled or bent leaves weak; the strong flowers should be near the weak leaves, and the strong leaves near the buds or overblown flowers. A flower below a leaf is weaker than one above. In thinning out leaves in a composition, two strong leaves must remain for every weak one."

The appropriate placing of flowers in the home is carefully considered by the Japanese. The placing of their furniture, wall decorations and pictures is very definite, and the flowering material is carefully set so it in no way detracts from other decorative features in the home. Regarding this point Miss Harada says: "Flowers go to the place of honor in the home. The style of the room in which they are to be arranged plays a great part in the arrangement. We carefully consider the other decorative features in the rooms, whether there are rich tones, or soft, quiet ones. As a rule, our drawing rooms are decorated in gray and mostly with one or two paintings. The flowers are placed in a definite position in a recess and we have but few other ornaments in our rooms. We have only those things in our home which give one rest and repose as one comes in from the busy world. Flowers do this."

The position flowers are to occupy in the American home is of importance. They have a cheering influence in the dining room and seem particularly appropriate in the entrance hall, for they give a spirit of hospitality when so placed. As a rule, our first impressions are lasting ones, and when one enters a hall made cheerful with flowers, the impression of the spirit of welcome associates itself in one's mind in connection with that home.

The Japanese consider carefully the scenery portrayed in a painting and aim to make the floral compositions placed near it harmonize as closely as possible. If the picture represents lake or river scenery, water plants are used in the flower arrangement. If a painting of Plum blossoms is hung on the walls, Plum blossoms would not be selected for the vases, but species which are seasonable with the flowering of the Plums would be chosen.

Miss Mary Averill has written an interesting and instructive book on Japanese Flower Arrangement and students interested in the application of the principles of this type of arrangement in the placing of flowers in American homes will find the book of much value.



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