Japan has a long history, ranging from the beginnings of human habitation to the archipelago to its connection with both Korean and Chinese invaders which later conquered, then settled sometime in the 10th millennium BCE. Being subjected to sudden invasions of new ideas followed by long periods of minimal contact with the outside world shaped the country we see today. Over time the Japanese developed the uncanny “ability to absorb, imitate, and finally assimilate those elements of foreign culture that complemented their aesthetic preferences” better than the cultures who created them. Ancient Japanese art covers a wide range of art styles and media, including ancient pottery and sculpture, ink painting and calligraphy, as well as ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. Since the beginning, the early Japanese were presented with the burden of constant invasions, the decimation of the Buddhist religious movement which threatened their beliefs, as well as the transformation from an agrarian into a modern society. My goal will be to explain and discuss, the influence of pottery of the early inhabitants, to the rise of painting as a new medium, and lastly the emergence of woodblock prints which changed the course of art in the archipelago. These three artistic shifts in the Japanese societal culture have contributed to the country’s unique heritage. The struggles and isolationist policies throughout the kingdom beginning’s, until the mid-nineteenth century, provide the basis of how the Japanese used these mediums to record their history by way of artistic expression thus shaping their art.
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The religious practice of the early Japanese was based on a profound sense of admiration for natures manifestations such as the sun, water, trees, rocks, and the silence. Human’s response to these phenomena was to purify themselves and to identify sacred precincts. Much later this practice was named Shinto or Way of the Gods. The earliest complex art in Japan was produced in the 7th and 8th centuries in correlation with the introduction of Buddhism. In the 9th century, as the Japanese begin to turn away from China and seek to develop its own indigenous forms of expression. Throughout history, Japanese ceramics have been coveted as one of the finest in the world. This medium includes the earliest known artifacts found throughout the archipelago and have a significant role in the development of Japanese culture. Early examples of pottery can be attributed to the first settlers of Japan. According to Prudence Rice in the Journal of Archaeological Method & Theory,
“the Jōmon 10,500 – c. 300 BCE….., were named for the cord markings made by impressions of cords or cord-wrapped sticks on the surfaces of their clay vessels. These inhabitants were nomadic hunter-gatherers, their homesites were caves and rock shelters, though coastal shell middens were widespread these settlements have “villages” of semi-subterranean dwellings. These simple dwellings of shells, wood, and thatch set into shallow earthen pits to provide warmth from the soil.”(14)
The early Jōmon crafted elaborately decorated pottery storage vessels, clay figurines called dogū, and crystal jewels. Archeologists have since discovered villages, attributed to the early Jōmon with everyday objects being identified, such vessels, are believed to have been used for boiling foods. These vessels had flat bottoms and decorations around the rim. In the Middle Jōmon period 4500-4000 BCE, vessels were described as “flamboyantly shaped and sculptured pottery”(15). In addition, other important finds were the early Jōmon figurines which might have been used as fertility objects due to the breasts and swollen hips they exhibited. Much like the early figurines found in central Europe during the same period.
As early the Japanese converted to a more agrarian society, production continued. Many researchers interpret, this latter group from the Middle Jōmon period had a stable economy and more leisure time to create more ornate pieces. In addition, The decorations on the vessels began to resemble a more realistic approach. Not only did the production increase during this period, but these individuals made their design more decorative and naturalistic. Archeologist attribute tools and ceramics that were able to process the food which they gathered and hunted, made living easier as a whole. Over the next thousand years, the production of pottery continued. Design and production processes improved and by the Edo period, Japanese pottery and porcelain was mostly stoneware. Many diverse styles continued throughout Japan, but traditional Japanese ceramics were transformed by a large influx of Korean potters, said to have been captured or persuaded to emigrate in the course of the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s. Many who were settled on the southern island of Kyushu, brought with them experience and versions of the Chinese-style kilns, called noborigama.
By the 7th and 8th centuries, the major focus in contact between Japan and the Asian continent was the development of Buddhism within the archipelago. The spread of Buddhism provided the initial catalyst for contacts between China and Japan. The Japanese recognized aspects of Chinese culture could be incorporated into their own. Thus a system for converting ideas and sounds into writing; historiography; complex theories of government, and, most important for the arts, new techniques, and media for painting. By this period in Japan’s history painting had become the preferred artistic expression throughout, practiced both by amateurs and professionals alike. Until modernity, the Japanese used brushes rather than pens to write, and their familiarity with brush techniques made them particularly sensitive to the values and aesthetics of painting. In the last century of the Heian period, 800 to 1200 AD., the horizontal, illustrated narrative handscroll, known as e-maki or “picture scroll”, had become popular. These scrolls dating from about 1130 AD., are known to be one of the high points of Japanese painting. The 12th-century artists of the e-maki version devised a system of pictorial conventions that convey visually the emotional content of each scene. In the second half of the century, a different, livelier style of continuous narrative illustration transformed the art. These newer scrolls deal with an intrigue at court, it emphasizes figures in active motion depicted in rapidly executed brush strokes and thin but vibrant colors. Sinéad Kehoe, Japanese art curator in the Metropolitan Museum Department of Asian Arts, states in her 2010 article,
“E-maki also serves as some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e (“men’s pictures”) and onna-e (“women’s pictures”) styles of painting. There are many fine differences in the two styles, appealing to the aesthetic preferences of the genders. But perhaps most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically deals with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes. Otoko-e often recorded historical events, particularly battles. (Five Thousand Year of Japanese Art. Met. 2010)”
A shift in later E-maki versions created a new interest in realism yet nostalgic for past days of wealth and power, the nobility revived this notion and artists illustrated them in order to recapture the splendor of the times.
By the early fourteenth century, a profound change took place in Japanese Culture. Known as the Ashikaga period, The Ashikaga Shogunate took control of the military government and made the decision to move its headquarters of operations back to Kyoto. With the return of government to the capital, cultural expression took on a more aristocratic, elitist character. Zen Buddhism, was introduced for a second time and began to take root. The Ashikaga maintained eight eastern provinces but could not control the rest of the country. They dismantled feudal traditions by forging alliances with local landowners and warlords, the “rights or shares in the produce estates”(41 textbook) was no longer carried out and the stewards became the outright owner or in some case lost their claims to the land entirely. This period saw an incredible amount of chaos as Kyoto changed hands frequently. Because of this unrest, secular ventures and trading missions to China organized by Zen temples, various Chinese paintings, and art objects were imported into Japan and profoundly influenced Japanese artists working for Zen temples and the shogunate. Due to the amount of trade in the region, many artists began to learn and create works which signified a new sense of observation. These worksprovided the medium in which literary and artistic traditions of the past were assimilated and transformed by highly cultivated men of both the emerging class and the court.
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“With the rise of popular culture in the Edo period, a style of woodblock prints became a major form and its techniques were fine-tuned to produce colorful prints. Introduced during China’s Han Dynasty (a period lasting from 206 BC–220 AD), the art of woodblock printing was not popularized in mainstream Japan until its Edo period (an era from 1603–1868). Initially, the woodblock printing process was used to reproduce traditional hand-scrolls as affordable books, but it was soon adopted as a means to mass-produce prints… To create a woodblock print in the traditional Japanese style, an artist would first draw an image onto washi, a thin yet durable type of paper. The washi would then be glued to a block of wood, and—using the drawing’s outlines as a guide—the artist would carve the image into its surface. The artist would then apply ink to the relief. A piece of paper would be placed on top of it, and a flat tool called a baren would help transfer the ink to the paper. To incorporate multiple colors into the same work, artists would simply repeat the entire process, creating separate woodblocks and painting each with a different pigment. (mymodernment.com)“
This becomes an important medium in the mid-1850s and 60s. Japan ended its isolationist foreign policy known as sakoku and changed from a feudal Tokugawa shogunate to the pre-modern empire of the Meiji government. The dissemination of mass printed propaganda added fuel to the major ideological-political divide during this period between the pro-imperial nationalists called ishin shishi and the shogunate forces. Although these two groups were the most visible powers, many other factions attempted to use the chaos to seize power until the pro-shogunate forces were defeated.
The Japanese have forever perceived foreigners as “a burden,” “disrupters of the traditional patterns of Japanese life,” and “causers of problems.” During several periods foreigners were allowed to intermingle bringing new ideas of intercultural cooperation to early government leaders and Japanese residents. This was thought to promote values and symbols that could help forge a sense of national unity and purpose. Eventually, we see these values were stoked by Japanese superpatriots in the 1930s and early 1940s, leading to the Japanese involvement in WWII which continues to be undeniably present today. Japanese art is characterized by unique polarities. In the ceramics of the prehistoric periods, for example, exuberance was followed by disciplined and refined artistry. Japanese art, valued not only for its simplicity but also for its colorful exuberance, has influenced 19th-century Western painting. Japan’s aesthetic conceptions, deriving from diverse cultural traditions, have been formative in the production of unique art forms. Over the centuries, a wide range of artistic motifs developed and were refined, becoming ingrained with symbolic significance. Japanese aesthetics provide a key to understanding artistic works perceivably different from those coming from the Western traditions we have studied and come to understand. For these reasons, the Japanese have been incredibly successful when creating mediums to record their history by way of artistic expression, whether its pottery and sculpture, its intricate style of painting, or its woodblock prints.
- Rice, Prudence M. “On the Origins of Pottery.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, vol. 6, no. 1,
- 1999, pp. 1–54. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20177395.
- Department of Asian Art. “Art of the Edo Period (1615–1868).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/edop/hd_edop.htm (October 2003), accessed on May 17th 2019
- mymodernmet.com https://mymodernmet.com/ukiyo-e-japanese-woodblock-prints/ , accessed on May 18th 2019
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