Assignment #3

February 8, 2009 at 8:51 pm (Uncategorized)

Let’s start off by saying the task of succinctly summarizing all of Japanese art from its earliest history to the end of its feudal age is an almost impossible task. Thinking that Japanese art did not go through changes in style or subject throughout a thousand year history is equivalent to saying that European art was equally stagnant over that same period. However there are some commonalities that run throughout that cultures broad history of design which we will attempt to highlight.

First though we will answer the questions of when, where, who, what, how, and why.

WHEN: Japanese art went through many stages of development. Often these coincide with Japanese periods of cultural openness when they absorbed Buddhist and Chinese culture and then periods of isolationism when Japan innovated on those styles and created their own unique art. Although different forms of design went through different periods of change we will discuss briefly six periods of Japanese design.

Nara period (710–794) This period was defined by the introduction of Buddhism and the addition of its religious and historical figures into Japanese art.

Grave Murals by Takamatsuzuka Tumulus c700

Grave Murals by Takamatsuzuka Tumulus c700

Heian Period (794-1185)This period marks a time when Japan was closed to continental Asia and thus innovated upon its mainland influences

Kamakura Period (1185-1333) During this period a new military shogunate was established and secular military history art became a much larger part of Japanese design.

Portrait of Minamoto no Yoritomo possibly by Fujiwara Takanobu

Portrait of Minamoto no Yoritomo possibly by Fujiwara Takanobu

Muromachi Period (1333-1568 ) During this period Japan reopened itself to the mainland and was again influenced by Chinese art.

Painting of Amanohashidate by Sesshu 1501

Painting of Amanohashidate by Sesshu 1501

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600 ) This period saw the evolution of decorative painting on new surfaces like walls and panels.

Edo Period (1600-1868 ) In this period the shoganate ruled supreme and a key theme was his repressive policies. Art became the most secular here. Japan would remain isolated until American Admiral Perry forced Japan to open trade.

Beauty Looking Back by Hishikawa Moronobu 17th century

Beauty Looking Back by Hishikawa Moronobu 17th century

WHERE: Japan was relatively culturally homogenous especially during times of isolationism. Design throughout the periods was seen everywhere – in isolated Buddhist temples to castle fortresses.

WHO: Professional artists in Japan, especially during the early periods were on the lower end of a strict social hierarchy. In the latter periods famous artists would emerge and could be given higher status by being given a name by a feudal lord. However art was also produced by nobles, monks, and samurai as a leisurely pursuit. What follows are some famous Japanese artists.

Itchiku Kubota – famous designer of Kimonos

Katsushika Hokusai – famous Ukiyoeshi painter during the Edo period.

Utagawa Hiroshige – another famous pained during Edo period. Famous for “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido”

WHAT and WHY: What and why are very interrelated questions. What was depicted and why it was depicted go hand in hand. What was depicted in the early periods after the introduction of Buddhism to the Japanese mainland were pictures of a religious nature. This later evolved as secular shoganates began to take over into more purely historical or militaristic paintings. Later still artists began to depict scenes from everyday life and events. Throughout landscapes and depictions of beautiful women were present. The reasons for these changing subjects can be seen in changing cultural values and dominating historical events.

Another way to classify Japanese painting would be flower-and-bird paintings (kachoga), landscape paintings (sansuiga), and paintings of people (jimbutsuga).

Scuplture was predominantly figures.

Architecture was varied between temples, shrines, castles, private dwellings, and teahouses.

Fashion changed dramatically over time but was generally made from silk or hemp or other fabrics. Much of Japanese fashion was colorful and expressive.

A key difference between European art and Japanese art is that in European art there has been a continual evolution towards realism. We see basic paintings in the pre-greco Mediterranean which only rudimentarily understand form or perspective which evolve to the idealized and realistic forms of Greek and Roman sculpture. After the fall of Rome the process restarts and painting slowly evolves towards the Renaissance in which realism again becomes close to perfected.

In Japanese art the evolution of their artwork does not necessarily lead towards greater realism. Instead Japanese art has a tendency to express the core of the subject through design. Expression is valued over realism.

How: Japanese art is produced from a variety of materials in a variety of mediums. As opposed to European painting which was generally done on canvass Japanese art might be made on scrolls, screens, walls, or woodblocks with ink or paint. Sculpture was made from bronze, wood, stone, clay or lacquer.

From here we will discuss four different types of Japanese design – painting, sculpture, fashion, and architecture.


The Great Wave off Kanagawa Katsushika Hokusai

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai 19th century

Hikone Screen by Unknown Artist

Hikone Screen by Unknown Artist 17th century

One of the distinctive things we will see throughout each type of Japanese art is the use of line. Here we see line used in relation to color. Look at “The Wave” – notice how there is no shading, rather there are set hues and values of color juxtaposed and often outlined. This creates strong implications of lines. Also notice the folds in the clothes of the above figures. In reality folds are not lines but changes in value. However the folds are created by the use of line. This use of line will lend itself naturally to a sense of movement and rhythm in the paintings. Because we have tendency to follow lines across their trajectory our eye is given a clear path to follow – quite obviously in the first painting but also more subtly in the second. In the first movement is created by the precarious curve of the wave, we all know what will happen next. Our eye starts from the base of the wave and curves upward to its dangerous tip. In the screen painting we see that the figures are in dynamic positions, they are not depicted rigidly. We follow the curves of their bodies and their eye-lines across the screen. 


Himeji Castle constructed 1614

Himeji Castle constructed 1614Todaiji Temple constructed 745

Todaiji Temple constructed 745

Todaiji Temple constructed 745

In much of Japanese architecture and especially in the two buildings depicted here line, form, and rhythm combine to create powerful emphasis. Take for instance the temple, here the vertical and horizontal lines created by the columns and floors respectfully generally counteract each other leaving the gracefully upward curving lines of the roofs dominating the structure. These distinctive lines form stacked triangular forms which our eyes follow upwards – even in a relatively short structure. This creates upwards moving emphasis. This can clearly be seen in the picture of the castle. Our eye is immediately drawn to the peak of the tower because all the lines and forms force our eye to that point.


Kosode with Autumn Flower Patterns Design by Ogata Korin 18th Century

Kosode with Autumn Flower Patterns Design by Ogata Korin 18th Century

Dobuku with Paulownia and Arrow Patterns 16th century

Dobuku with Paulownia and Arrow Patterns 16th century

What we see in the design of these clothes is that the clothes themselves could be used as an artistic palate. This was obviously more true for the upper classes who could afford these types of designs. The use of color here is what makes them stand out. The bright colors (though faded here with time) in both designs would cause the individual wearing them to stand out. Because these patterns are layered over white strong contrast is created.  Emphasis would be created on the forms and thus on the individual wearing the clothes.


Gakko Bosatsu (Sangatsudo Hall at Todaiji Temple) 8th century

Gakko Bosatsu (Sangatsudo Hall at Todaiji Temple) 8th century

Seated Image of Hachiman in the Guise of a Buddhist Monk by Kaikei 1201

Seated Image of Hachiman in the Guise of a Buddhist Monk by Kaikei 1201

Here again we see lines as a dominant feature of the artwork. The graceful lines of the figure’s robes create a sort of elegance and peacefulness. This fits because these figures are Buddhist in nature which puts forth a philosphy of calmness and peace. In Japan sculpture is largely associated with Buddhism so as secular leaders took power and secular art became more prominant sculpure became less popular as time went on.

Works Cited
“Fine Arts.” The Virtual Museum for Japanese Arts. 5 Feb. 2009
Jirousek, Charlotte. “Japan: Historic Background.” Art, Design, and Visual Thinking. 1995. Cornell. 5 Feb. 2009
Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Limited, 1993.
Paine, Robert T., and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1995.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: