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Contemporary Portraits of Sadakichi Hartmann

"Sadakichi Hartmann, Art Critic"
by Vance Thompson

Paris Herald, September, 1906

One of the strangest and most original men of letters of the day -- in the United States at all events -- is Sadakichi Hartmann, the poet, art critic, and lecturer. He was born in the land of wistarias and chrysanthemums, and he sees life with that Japanese anarchy of perspective.

His gifts are abundant and multiform, and his genius for writing has many modes and moods. He is lyric, naive and mystic, brutally realistic, dramatic at turns and for all that eminently oriental. He has written about the sea more musically than any poet of latter days. He has enriched the short story literature with a few pages of exquisite gray prose. He has written strange, flame colored dramas on the vanished gods--Buddha and Christ and Mohammed. And he has told the tragedy of a New York flat in the speech common on the East Side.

Not satisfied with these accomplishments, rare as they are fantastic, he has become the high-priest of American Art. Critically he has carried the American art movement on his shoulders for the last fifteen years. His courage is to be admired, though it is a vain ambition for a man "who has the poet's insight into life." Not that talented sculptors and painters are entirely absent in the land of Howells and Comstock, but they are deficient in red blood corpuscles. Artists have a hard life of it over there, and their work shows it. The trouble with American art is that it is hodden gray and anemic. And as their critic "the man with the Hokusai profile and broad Teutonic culture" (to quote J. G. Huneker) is, if anything at all, a strong natural man, the result is pallid and unprofitable. Nothing more sad than a critic who is more virile and vital than the work he criticizes.

With worthier subjects he might have dowered the world with more intellectual magnificence. Yet that is his affair. He for his part is sincere. He believes in American art and artists and carries his message to and fro the entire country.

He has compiled the first History of American Art (L. C. Page & Co., 1901 and Hutchinson & Co., London, 1903) and he was the first writer who succeeded in popularizing the peculiarities and beauties of Japanese art to us (L. C. Page & Co., Boston, 1903 and G. P. Putnam Sons, London, 1904). He was never prolific, brevity is his greatest charm and strength, and in a few essays, as "Color in Architecture," "Puvis de Chavannes," "The Flat Iron Building," "The Influence of Visual Perception on Technique," he has summed up some of the most important theories of modern art. In his "White Chrysanthemums," a prose poem of scarcely five hundred words he has laid down his entire art creed, "to learn to look at pictures as we look at the flush of the evening sky, at a passing cloud, at the vision of a beautiful woman, or at a white chrysanthemum."

He seems to have pondered deeply on Zola's epithet "art is a fragment of nature as seen through a temperament," and like wise Anatole France's "criticism is the adventure of one's soul among masterpieces"--and it seems to me almost to his undoing.

Criticism of this kind is no longer criticism, it is either appreciation or irony. His art writings are poetical, beautiful, visionary rather than analytical. Sadakichi Hartmann's contention is that this is the only way to reach the public, "to reflect by a new work of art the beauty of the original." "Why," he exclaimed one day to me "if a picture is really beautiful, one must be able to write a poem about it, or express it in music or any other art."

His style is peculiar, it reaches from slang to the academically caduque, it is chameleon-like, it adapts itself to every new subject, it is at once materialistic and mystic, emotional and matter of fact. I do not speak of his journalistic efforts. In them he is not better than the ordinary "art gentleman," but whenever he finds a subject to his liking, he saddles his Pegasus and gallops away to some Castillian fountain, where he may sit cross-legged in the twilight and meditate in oriental fashion upon the fugitive beauties of this world.

Withal his virtues as an art critic are non-literary. In other branches of literature, he is an innovator, a constructor of new forms. In his poems he combines the free verse with the most difficult metrical forms like the sestine and pantoum. His short stories advance one step beyond the French, in as far as they depict the influence of the momentary environment. In his dramas that remind one vaguely of Shelley and lbsen's "Peer Gynt" he is at the mercy of an imagination which is neither to hold nor to bind.

His art criticisms on the other hand show the struggle of objective observation and subjective interpretation, and the development of an individual style is handicapped thereby.

As I have said before his greatest virtues as an art critic are non-literary. And they are his broad and deep culture, his sincerity and astounding frankness, his fresh and personal sense of life and the enthusiasm of a singularly strong and attractive personality.

"Prologue to Sadakichi"
by Holger Cahill

Sadakichi Hartmann is the youngest old man I have ever known. Not the adolescent youth of our times and our land where old women wear short skirts and old men dye their hair, but the youth which is eternal, which finds its way to the essential things.

There is a certain timelessness in Sadakichi's youth. He always appears to be of his time. Not because he is interested in the latest fad of the moment which appears to be our American way, but because he makes his way unerringly to the things in his time which have that vital quality in them which keeps them alive and young forever.

The other day I looked through Sadakichi's History of American Art which he wrote in 1900. I discovered there again, in turning over the leaves of his book that he had found and appreciated the true artists of that generation, the men who had been neglected by contemporary critics. I found there appreciation of Thomas Eakins, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Winslow Homer, men who were then scarcely noticed. I even discovered a long and enthusiastic disquisition on the work of Alfred Stieglitz in photography. Who but Sadakichi Hartmann, among our critics, was writing about Tryon, Dewing, and Steichen in the years of 1893-1900? (And the artists whom he championed did they appreciate his courage and unerring discrimination? Surely not in a sense of material reciprocity.)

Sadakichi is certainly one of the most extraordinary characters which this century has produced. He has made contributions in criticism of the arts, in writing stories and poetry, in his reading of poetry, and in his dancing. Why then is he not better known and appreciated? The answer it seems to me, is simple. He is too much of an original for us Americans. He is one of the remarkable singulars who do not fit into our machine life. Gertrude Stein, who for all the peculiarities of her writing, is one of the wise women of our generation, has stated the case in her "Making of Americans," she says:

"Yes, real singularity we have not made enough of yet so that any other one can really know it. I say vital  singularity is as yet a unknown product with us, we who in our habits, dress-suit cases, clothes and hats and ways of thinking, walking, making money, talking, having simple lines in decorating, in ways of reforming, all with a metalic clicking like the typewriting which is our only way of thinking our way of educating our way of learning, all always the same way of doing, all the way down as far as there is any way down inside to us. We all are the same all through us, we never have it to be free inside us. No brother singulars, it is sad here for us, there is no place in an adolescent world for anything eccentric like us, machine making does not turn out queer things like us, they can never make a world to let us be free each one inside us."

I consider Sadakichi Hartmann one of the great singulars of all times!

Holger Cahill

Read before lecture, "Art by the Few for the Few," at Romany Marie’s, New York, January 22, 1933

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