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.