History of Art in Japan

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[Image: Unkei, Asanga (1212), carved and painted wood. Source: Wikimedia]

The scope of this volume is extensive. The author intends to outline the main features, persistent ideas and developments in Japanese fine arts, crafts and architecture from pre-history to today. Tsuji outlines the development of Japan’s culture through artefacts from its early eras of Jōmon, Yayoi, Kofun, Nara, Heian and Medieval. The subsequent Edo and Modern periods are much more familiar to non-Japanese readers and these are covered in more detail because of the complexity and large amount of documentation and artefacts from this time.

The cord patterning and stippling in winding linear layouts of the pot decoration in the Jōmon period (9300-500 BCE) can be seen as forerunners of Japanese fine art of our day, such as that by Minoru Onoda. Prefigured Modernism abounds in Japanese art. “[…] another dogū [freestanding ceramic figurines], discovered in 1992 at the Nishinomae site in Yamagata prefecture and designated as a National Treasure in 2012, whose legs suggest that the figure is wearing pants; the sharp drop along the back recalls the forms of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.” Debates continue about the relative levels immigration from Korea in the Yayoi period; what is not in dispute was the importance of their visual culture.

According to tradition, in 522 Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and in 538 it began to be incorporated into the imperial court. In the following centuries, carvings of the Buddha were fusions of indigenous Japanese culture and imported Korean and Chinese statuary. These were made from stone or wood, often gilded or intricately painted with paint and lacquer. Later statues showed sophisticated manipulation of pattern, emphatic volume, simplified forms and drapery, even with the loss of polychromy. Buddhist temples became more sophisticated and the Izumo-taisha (Izumo grand shrine) was constructed on giant pillars that may have been as tall as 100 metres, reached by a long straight staircase. The use of wood and paper in architecture has meant that early structures have been lost and rebuilt. At this time shōgon (sacred ornament) became a major strand in craft production. Tsuji explains the theological basis for the statues, mandalas and narrative paintings that dominate art in the following eras.

In the Middle Heian period (894-1086), isolation from the continent led to development of a more synthesised Japanese style (wayō). By this stage the main pillars of Japanese visual culture are well established. The art and craft are all recognisably Japanese, with architecture being more closely tied to Chinese models. Zōchōten (Virudhaka) (839) (carved wood with lacquer, colour and gold leaf, 182.5 cm high) has the guardian king in an imposing martial stance, the elaborate drapery and clothing emphasising rather than concealing his stature. His fierce visage is turned in profile, powerfully framed by a halo of fire. There is nothing of such accomplishment from the same period in Europe. The author comments on similarities between this group of statues and Indian carving.

Lacquer work and inlay on furniture had an established repertoire of decorative motifs by the early C12th – waves, flowers and other plants, mountains, clouds, animals. Painting was executed on scrolls, silk, fans, plaster walls, paper-panel walls and screens. Many paintings from temples or monasteries were discoloured by soot or destroyed by fire. The survival of painted screens from 1050-1100 allows us to get a glimpse of painting from the Late Heian period. Paintings at this time were religious, narrative or decorative in character; painting qua painting did not exist as a separate approach at this time. Japanese fans of the time were prized in China. The history of calligraphy is intertwined with those of handscrolls and fans. Buddhist scripture provided opportunities for imagination in the depiction of realms of heaven and hell, some of which are used as examples. Vivid scenes of suffering, famine, degradation and torture seem to be a mixture of observation of life at the time and pure imagination. The suffering of human existence is an important teaching of the Buddha, so such scenes are common throughout the region. A notable example is a grisly scene of the C13th of putrefaction and bodily dissolution, Aspects of the Unclean Human Path. In the late C13th a wave of Ch’an monks from China fleeing the Mongol invasion brought Zen teaching to Japan. It subsequently became the predominant school of Buddhism in the Japanese islands. Much of Japanese art continued to be influenced by China. One transplanted idea that the Japanese monks perfected was the idea of the dry garden, where water features were replaced by areas of raked gravel.

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[Image: Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara. Source: Wikimedia: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4369910%5D

The key architectural masterpiece in Japan is the Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara featuring the classic double-roof, top roof steeply pitched, lower roof shallow, both with lifted corners. It houses two brilliantly expressive statues (1203) carved in wood by Unkei and Kaikei. For an analogue of great art that fuses realism and emotional hyper-expression we in the west could think of Grünewald’s Colmar Altarpiece (1512-6). Unkei’s other works display a forceful, reserved realism, including a masterful portrait of the monk Asanga (1212). Kaikei was more indebted to Song-style religious statuary. Wood carving at this time reached remarkable heights of competence and expressiveness without compromising the need to convey dignity and restraint. In contrast, painted portraits attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu (d. 1204/5) situate the stylistic but realistic heads on bodies that are rendered geometric by their costumes.

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[Image: Fujiwara no Takanobu (attr.), Portrait of Yoritomo (1179), ink on silk scroll, 29 x 236 cm. Source: Wikimedia]

The Nanbokuchō (1333-92) and Muromachi (1392-1573) periods brought advances in landscape painting and genre scenes of everyday life. Detached from historical and religious content, these areas allowed greater freedom for artists and patrons. (This coincides with the emergence of secular subjects in art in Renaissance Europe.) In the late C16th Christian missionaries made a few converts in Japan and some Japanese painters began to mimic Western-style painting. Most of this was later destroyed in anti-Christian riots but what survives seems to have been of more historical curiosity than aesthetic value. Likewise, periodic fires destroyed temples and cities built using wood and paper, depriving us of a clear picture of early phases of Japanese architecture.

The modern period of Japan is the Edo period, lasting from 1615 to 1867. At this time, art became increasingly realistic and secular. The spectacular sliding-door decoration of Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) and son Kanō Sansetsu (1590-1651), incorporating exquisite depiction of natural elements against a gold-leaf ground shows the sophistication of the period and the effortless application of fine-art technique to architectural use.

In the 1680s the ukiyo-e (floating world style) was established by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). These were genre scenes of everyday life in the pleasure quarters of Edo, featuring musicians, actors, geishas, courtesans and street life. Although best known in the prints of the time, the genre encompasses art in all forms. It is during the Edo period that the classic art of the colour woodblock print was developed (in 1765, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)) and became for Westerners the epitome of Japanese visual culture. The economic sophistication of the system combined the skills of designer (eshi/gakō), cutter (horishi), printer (surishi) and publisher (hanmoto) (not neglecting the sellers) to produce an intricate system for the mass-production of great art.

In 1854 Japan was forcibly opened up to international trade and the 1867 appearance of a Japanese pavilion at the Paris international exposition marked the end of Japan’s isolation. This would mark the boom in japonisme in Europe and North America, which came to dominate the decorative arts and influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. For better and worse, the art of the West also came to Japan, to very mixed results. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the most successful artist to adopt elements of Western style while remaining wedded to the advantages and traditions of Japan, working in prints. The adoption of copperplate engraving and oil paint used in conjunction with half-understood Western use of shading, perspective and so forth led to art that ranged from the beguiling to the deeply deficient. Many potentially competent Japanese artists ended up as makers of failed hybrids that seem ugly, ungainly and crude. Oil paint seems to have been disastrous for Japanese art, robbing it of its crispness, clarity, concision and planar qualities.

In 1867 Japanese society impressed Westerners as uniquely “Western” in its highly stratified social structure and very advanced literature and art, though lacking the widespread literacy and high average income that was beginning to begin standard in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Beyond less advanced societies in Asia, the Japanese were considered honorary Westerners in some respects. Even the tendency for women to paint their faces white was seen as a link to pale-skinned Westerners.

Japanese art of the Meiji and later periods is so wildly heterogeneous and mixed in character that it is hard for the author to describe or evaluate it. Making any general comments about Japanese art at this time is almost impossible and this is the weakest section of the book. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) stands out among the printmakers, making the most of Japanese subject matter and Western style in his colour prints. It is among the artists of nihonga (Japanese style) that we find the best of C20th art in Japan. The story reaches present day with some frames of anime and manga drawings, as well as fine-art paintings.

Tsuji explains the significance of the waves of different Buddhist teaching which directed cultural production, as well as how the art of Japan relates to the social, military, economic and imperial history of the nation. The use of proper terms will allow non-Japanese readers to acquire some familiarity – as they are defined as they are introduced – but the use does not seem excessive to this reviewer. The book has numerous illustrations of key works and typical examples. Even at 631 pages (of which 150 are reference), this book does seem long or overly detailed. Readers will likely close this book satisfied and inspired to search out monographs on certain artists and periods. As a guide History of Art in Japan meets its author’s intentions handsomely.

 

Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (trans.), History of Art in Japan, Columbia University Press, October 2019, paperback, 664pp, fully illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 23119 341 2 (hardback available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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