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Japanese art... through the centuries

Japan’s fascinating history has birthed an even more fascinating cultural heritage. The country’s art forms have evolved with exterior influences from its neighboursChina and Korea, its history, and its growing sense of national identity.

In light of a recent explosion of appreciation for Japanese culture across the UK’s galleries and museums, we’ve delved deeper to discover the history and the story behind some of Japan’s most celebrated artworks. The V&A’s Manners and Modernity: Ukiyo-e and etiquette on the Seibu Railway exhibition (open until 22 March 2020) features a selection of woodblock prints depicting courtesans and Kabuki actors. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery is paying homage to iconic Japanese print designers Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi (until 8 September 2019). And the recent Manga exhibition at The British Museum (until 26 August 2019) celebrates more modern Japanese culture.

Jōmon period (11,000 – 300 B.C.) & Yayoi period (300 B.C – 300 A.D.)

Pottery was the key output of the Jōmon period because of a food supply crisis that created a need for food storage solutions. Jōmon translated means 'cord mark', and refers to decorative impressions, made using tools such as shells, cords and carved sticks, found on pottery from this period.

New materials like glass, iron and bronze were brought to Japanese artisans from China and Korea in the Yayoi period. The bronze Dōtaku bells are a beautiful example of the period’s developing metal craft. These giant bells are etched with patterns representing nature and were used as decorations for harvest rituals. They were also used as an alert to invasions, particularly from the Korean Peninsula.

Kofun period (300 – 552) & Asuka period (552 – 645)

The Kofun period gets its name, meaning 'old mounds', from a funerary custom popular in the era. Mounded tombs would be topped with cylindrical clay figures called haniwa that acted as protective spiritual guardians for the dead. The haniwa mark a shift from functional to more spiritual pottery production.

Buddhism was introduced into Japan by Korea in the Asuka period. Along with it came its artistic forms including painting, calligraphy, sculpture and temple architecture. Sculpture witnessed the most development in this period with its representations of Buddha. The Tamamushi Shrine is decorated with the only known painting from the period. It is also the first example of a Japanese narrative painting style that would later become iconic in Japanese culture.

Nara period (710 – 784)

During this period, Emperor Shōmu used Buddhism as a political tool in an attempt to unite warring Japanese clans under central rule. In 741, he declared that a monastery and a nunnery be built in each province. The grandest of these was the Todai-ji (Great Eastern Temple), completed in 740. It was the largest building in Japan at the time and the Great Buddha it housed was so large that it required all of Japan’s copper supply to build.

Heian period (794 – 1185)

In the Heian period, Buddhism developed two new branches that emphasised art as a spiritual practice that aided enlightenment. Consequently, the spiritual world became the subject of many artworks including the ryōkai amandara - the mandala of the two worlds - and the Shintō deity statues.

However, the most significant development during this time was in calligraphy and painting. A break in regular communication with China meant that Japan were able to develop their own character system – known as man’yōgana – to represent the Japanese phonetic sounds. This led to the creation of emaki – narrative hand scrolls – where painting and poetry met in a union that would become iconic later in Japanese culture. The first known examples of emaki scrolls are the Sanjūrokunin kashū (Anthologies of thirty-six poets) and The Tale of Genji.

Kamakura period (1185 – 1333)

In 1180, the Taira clan burnt down the Todai-ji temple in the Genpei War. To rebuild it, the Kei School of Sculpture was established. Unkei was the most recognisable sculptor of this school. He crafted the guardian figures that stand over 8 metres tall at the Nandai-mon (Great South Gate) of the current temple. These sculptures are a perfect example of the Kamakura realism movement popular at the time. Narrative scrolls also increased in popularity, and stories of Samurai, like the burning of the Sanjō Palace depicted in the Heiji monogatari emaki, were in high demand.

Muromachi period (1338 – 1573)

The tea ceremony underwent lavish aesthetic development and became a cult ritual during this period. Zen Buddhism had also been firmly established in Japanese culture by the 1300s, along with monochrome painting. Zen Buddhists thought that viewing or creating monochrome paintings would help them reach enlightenment. The father of Japanese ink painting, Taiko Josetsu, was a master of Suiboku-ga – ink wash. His most notable work was ‘Catching a Catfish with a Gourd’.

Edo period (1615 – 1868)

The Edo period marked the beginning of more than 250 years of national unity. The merchant classes were getting richer, the city centres were getting bigger, and art became accessible to the masses rather than just the elite. Kabuki theatre became fashionable in the newly licensed pleasure quarters, and woodblock paintings called ukiyo-e – pictures of the floating world – were popularised. They captured the complexities of urban life and the demi-monde.

From 1639 to 1868, Japan’s borders were closed to foreigners and travel restrictions were imposed. All that remained open was one Dutch trading port in Nagasaki. Ukiyo-e paintings of this time leaned towards more landscape subjects in order to give the people a chance to take journeys through art. Katsushika Hokusai produced some of the most iconic ukiyo-e landscapes in his Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji collection.

Modern period (1868 – present)

The modern period sees western and traditional Japanese methods merging. In 1876, a school of fine arts was established in Japan, teaching western techniques. As well this, there was also a renewal of the traditional painting methods. The result was the brainchild of two late 19th-century painters Kanō Hōgai and Hashimoto Gahō, who encouraged the adaptation of traditional styles with bright palettes and western spatial perspectives. While the selection of themes available to Japanese artists expanded, they still used the same traditional pigments.

While the origins of Manga date back to the emaki scrolls of the Heian period and the Kibyōshi picture books of the Edo period, the word itself came into common usage in 1798.  That year, Santō Kyōden’s Shiji no yukikai marked the arrival of manga as an established art form. Manga as we know it today exploded in the post-war period. Between 1945 and 1952 the Americans occupied Japan and influences of American comics transformed Manga.

Find out more about holidays to Japan here.