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

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Minoru Onoda

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Minoru Onoda (1937-2008) is best known as a member of the Gutai movement. Gutai was a group of Japanese artists determined to practise radical art in the avant-garde Western manner. It was founded in 1954. They produced painting influenced by Abstract Expressionism. It placed an emphasis on the procedure of production, in effect engaging in Process Art. There was inherent theatricality in the production of their art, which were presented as spectacles involving music and non-art materials. The events were sometimes public and recorded, with the production sometimes more important than the resultant material. Art was made by destroying material or painting while swinging from a harness over a horizontal surface. The group defiantly opposed many of the conventions of Japanese art, adopting non-Japanese practices and standards. It has been seen as a rejection of Japanese nationalism and unique culture. (Onoda was born in occupied Manchuria.) Gutai attracted attention worldwide but also criticism from Japanese traditionalists and from Western critics, who decried its spectacle as shallow and derivative. The group was dissolved in 1972.

This new book examines Onoda as an independent artist. He worked in paint primarily, but his paintings included sculptural elements. The gently undulating surfaces created on the plywood panels he used play with our sense of depth and light and shade. He painted irregular swirling lines and circles of colour which filled picture surfaces, forming surfaces that seem in motion both across the surface and inwards and outwards. The patterns recede and project, growing tiny then large. This impression is enhanced by the swells on the panel surface. The ground colour that Onoda favoured was yellow, usually with lines and circles in warm colours. One essay author compares them to psychedelic art that became fashionable a few years later.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK63-F (1963), oil, gofun and glue on plywood, 93.3 x 93 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

This work began in 1962 and marks Onoda’s maturation as an artist and his first original contribution to the art of his time. In 1965 (the year that he joined the Gutai group) Onoda started using red grounds and began producing circular patterns on square boards.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK66-13 (1966), oil, gofun and glue on plywood, 93.8 x 93.8 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

This developed into sets that were hung in triptychs, lines and grids. By the early 1970s Onoda began a group of works using circular motifs in blue. He used electric blue acrylic paint applied with an airbrush over stencils. The softness of the graduated tones gives these pieces an air of otherworldliness; the sharp edges and clarity are those of technical designs and industrially manufactured products. These are more meditative, detached pictures than the playful swelling organic patterns. In these airbrushed paintings (all of the works have numbered titles) we find some kind of conciliation with the practice of Buddhist mindful contemplation. The versions in red-pink and black-grey have different affects; they are more assertive. In 1974 Onoda founded the New Geometric Art Group. The hard-edge paintings, with their fine patterns and brushless application of colour, are associated with Op Art, which was then popular.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK79-Blue 47 (1979), Acrylic spray paint on cotton on plywood, 80 x 80 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

Starting in 1984 Onoda commenced painted monochrome works on shaped panels, often placed over panels of different colour. The panels were usually square, with wavy edges and drilled holes at the edge or dramatically crossing the centre at a tangent. The last works (starting in 1991) were paintings of dark colours applied with blades. These are the least engaging works of Onoda’s career. Essays discuss Onoda’s aesthetic and associations (he had a natural tendency to participate in group activities) and discuss his career trajectory. Shoichi Hirai states that Onada’s dramatic changes in style led to a degree of scepticism in observers. Examples of the artist’s sketchbook drawings show rehearsals and projections.

Onoda claimed in a review that his drive was not negative but oblivious. “I am not rebelling against anything. Nor do I favor the new over the old or the old over the new. I am rejecting anything, pushing any ideology or expressing any: the works are simply works. There is nothing I would like to communicate through them except the works themselves. It is my belief that communication ceases the moment a work is completed.” This generous selection of paintings, drawings and sculptures – along with installation shots of exhibitions – along with helpful essays will allow readers to judge Onoda’s statement.

 

Anne Mosseri-Marlio (ed.), Minoru Onoda, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2018, hardback, 232pp, 176 col./7 mono illus., €68, ISBN 978 3 858 818218

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

New Representations in Japanese Architecture

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Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture examines the way Japanese architecture is presented in graphic presentations. It covers the last twenty years of architectural design in commercial, civic and domestic fields. The illustrations consist of hand-drawn designs, plans, cross-sections, isometric elevations, 3D renderings and frames of CAD – alongside hybrid forms. These drawings are not rough sketches, working drawings or technical blueprints; they are representations made specifically for public display. They are pared down to their essence, conceptualised and aestheticised. There is an emphasis on clean space, elegance and clarity and a preference for schematic presentation over realism, as is common in the field. The layout of this book emphasises the clarity and sparseness of much Japanese architectural design.

Meystre discusses advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to drafting, including hybrid techniques and physical models, all viewed from the perspective of the digital age. There is a discussion of photographs of miniatures, an innovation from the Twentieth Century still used. Meystre notes the artistry of the photographer of models, commenting that frequently in Japan the photographer is credited with more creative input and control of these photographs than the architect or the builder of the model. As one would expect in a book dealing with architect presentations, there are no photographs of completed buildings. The author’s interviews with architects Ryūe Nishizawa, Kazuyo Sejima and others inform his discourse, with quotes illuminating views of practitioners.

The author notes that there is a generational change in Japanese architecture, which determined the 20-year limitation to his study. “One notable phenomenon of the recent history of Japanese architectural criticism is that whereas architects such as Kazao Shinohara, Fumihiko Maki, and Arata Isozaki wrote intensely and regularly throughout their careers, their younger colleagues have been very discreet regarding their theoretical positions.”

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[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, My Vision for Tokyo (2009) © Hideyuki Nakayama]

In the last two decades, information technology has also radically altered the way architecture is presented and understood by creators and public. Meystre notes that the increasing sophistication and flexibility of imaging technology has allowed architects greater flexibility and permitted experimentation that would have been costly, difficult or time consuming previously. One example is the use of radically reduced-scale images, which has become more commonly lately. “There is no limit to zooming within a window. The upshot is that digital lines, intrinsically, have no scale. […] The result is a common tendency among many architects to make the lines of their drawings spiderlike, to the point of invisibility.”

Use of computers has allowed the development of multiple isolines – hypothetical lines linking positions sharing a common property, such as height, light, temperature, barometric pressure and so forth. The lines map not structures or physical features but qualities. These linear matrices are accurate in visual terms and which produce images that are almost unrecognisable (almost arbitrary) when compared to conventional plans and come close to abstraction. Isoline projections can act as aids to contemplative thinking, in that they disrupt our standard assumptions about what a built structure is and reveal unseen and unconsidered aspects of it, prompting us to think in unexpected ways.

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[Image: Ryūe Nishizawa, Hiroshi Senju Museum, Karuizawa (2013) © Ryūe Nishizawa]

The question of how Japanese these presentations are is reflected in the way designs are seen and discussed. In the Japanese language, words describing space have value connotations: omote is “front surface” and “superficial” (something similar to the use in English of “façade”); ura “hidden side” and “authentic”; yami “near darkness” which limits persons and objects in darkness to a level where they are sensed rather than seen, has its origin in the Shinto concept of intuition; yūgen (noun and adjective functioning as an epithet, attribute or noun) meaning (variously) “remote/enclosed/profound/calm/dark mystery/secrecy/depth”, of Buddhist origin, has multiple aesthetic and spiritual attributes. Thus the Japanese ascribe associations and an attendant codified hierarchy of values to their spatial vocabulary.

Hideyuki Nakayama, Maison O, in Hideyuki Nakayama, Sketching, 2010, p. 103

[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, O House (2010) © Hideyuki Nakayama]

In practical terms, Meystre suggests this attachment to yami qualities of muted or dim light is reflected in a partiality towards depicting architectural spaces in light that is generally less intense than that encountered in typical Western presentations. However, Meystre goes on to point out that in Japanese architectural practices most cardboard models are made in white and photographed (or altered digitally) in ways that generate over-exposure. This apparent contradiction between a preference for muted light and overexposure in photography is not resolved by the author.

An oddity of the language used by new architects in Japan is the use of kawaii, “cute”, in the vocabulary of design. The term is usually used in relation to low art, animation, manga and discussion of attractiveness, especially in relation to animals and young women and girls. Kawaii in architecture is about ornamentation of plans through use of plants, decoration, furniture and moveable items.

Junya Ishigami, Maison en rangée, Tokyo, 2005, in JA n°66, 06 2007, pp. 54-55

[Image: Junya Ishigami, Row House, Tokyo (2008) © Junya Ishigami]

When these objects are included in illustrations they are necessarily miniaturised, those enhancing their kawaii quality through reduced toy-like, dream-like or charming appearance. This charm offsets the sparse clinical appearance of plans. Another reason the Japanese is linguistic or conceptual; inclusion of small utensils in Japanese designs – something Western designers usually omit – is partly due to the Japanese distinct conception of furniture. Kagu means “utensils for the house”, not differentiating from tables, beds and cutlery. Thus, for the Japanese, there is no threshold between the larger items and the smaller ones – which generates kawaii – whereas Western architects perceive firm qualitative differences between a vase and a table a Japanese does to a lesser extent.

Practicality and reality are not addressed in drawings, as is usual in such schemes. Like painters who cover their under-painting, ruler lines and adjusted positions with a final layer of paint – thereby concealing the secrets of their art – these architects show their final position as clear, unaltered and almost inevitable. There is a section which shows parallels between recent architectural projections and ukiyo-e colour woodblock prints. New designs even quote classic prints, linking illustrations to revered art. There is an essay about the genealogy of prominent architects of the last century and the way influence has been transmitted between them.

There are limitations to the book. The author intends this book to survey new aspects of architectural imagery from Japan rather than familiarise us with any single project. Dimensions are generally not included and rarely are settings or surrounding structures shown in designs. Although examples of approaches discussed in the text are shown, the priority is the overall survey of graphic representation rather than a close reading of any single image or project through a concentrated body of text and illustrations. (Many of the captions within illustrations are illegibly small, as we are not expected to read images in search of specific information.) It might have been illuminating to have a single building presented through various illustrations emphasising particular qualities.

Readers are left somewhat in the dark as to how effective the illustrations are at conveying an accurate or useful impression of the proposed structure. While Meystre is very good at presenting and explicating modes of illustration, he does not assess the efficacy of any of the modes nor of specific examples. Without that expert assessment, we – as lay readers – are left uncertain as to the usefulness and efficacy of the modes that are characteristic of recent Japanese illustration. Surely, functionality is one aspect that may be if not the primary then certainly a significant matter in our understanding of the material illustrated here.

Overall, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm offers a refreshing perspective on architectural presentation, giving a well-researched grounding for an analysis of recent developments and current trends in Japanese conceptualisations of architecture. It will also be of use to those interested in Japanese visual and linguistic culture.

 

Oliver Meystre, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture, Park Books, 2017, hardback, 240pp, 165 col. illus., English version (German version available), ISBN 978 3 03860 054 1

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art