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A Short History of Japanese Art

Japanese art is deeply rooted in the country's rich cultural historical heritage, spanning from the Jomon period to the present day. For 250 years Japan was isolated from the world, not only due to its geographical location but also an isolationist policy implemented from the 1600s to the 1800s. This separation enabled artists to develop very distinct styles and techniques, uninfluenced by other religions, external politics or close contact with other cultures, especially the West.The phenomenon came to be known as Japonisme as there was a sudden rise in interest in Japanese art after Japan re-commenced trade with the West in 1853, thus introducing their goods and culture to Europe. Japonisme was first used as a term by French collector and art critic Philippe Burty in 1872, as the influence of Japan on Western artists became more widespread.  One such introduction was that of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, literally meaning ‘pictures of the floating world’, referring to the pleasure districts of Edo (now Tokyo). The prints depicted Kabuki theatre actors, landscapes, erotic scenes and many other aspects of Japanese culture. Some of the most famous ukiyo-e artists were Katsushika Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Hiroshige, whose flattened perspectives, bright colours and defined outlines provided no end of inspiration to Western artists. The West, which at first bought Japanese art only as decoration and included it in its fashion, gradually began to perform art in this style. I will briefly discuss Japan's art historical development from antiquity to the Second World War.

Ancient Japan can be divided into three time periods:

1. Jomon period (13,000 BC - 300 BC)

2. Yayoi period (900 BC - 300 AD)

3. Kofun period (300 - 700 AD)

1. Jomon Period (13,000 BC - 300 BC)

Japan is said to be the first country in the world where ceramics were produced and there are findings that ceramics were produced by the indigenous people living in the Japanese islands during the Jomon period in 11 thousand BC. In this context, the Jomon people are defined as the first people in the world to produce pottery. During this period, Japanese ceramicists were making ornaments by pressing ropes and ropes into the clay before firing. For this reason, the pots and the people who produced them were called "Jomon" in Japanese, which means "straw rope pattern". These pots, which were shaped and fired by hand without a potter's wheel, were later decorated with engraving techniques.

Jomon PeriodCeramics

2. Yayoi Period (900 BC - 300 AD)

At the beginning of the Yayoi period, there was an influx of people with agricultural experience from China or Korea to Japan. These people brought farming to Japan, leading to the development of the first social classes and the concept of land ownership. Queen Himiko Yamatai introduced trade, taxation and social order.

Lathe ceramics started in this period.

3. Kofun Period (300 - 700 AD)

And the Kofun period (300 - 700 AD), when modern-day Japan began to take shape.

During the Kofun period, a third, genetically distinct group of Japanese ancestors migrated into the country, thought to have come from East Asia, most likely the Han people from ancient China.

Kofun is named after the burial mounds called "kofun".

Kofuns are decorated with Haniwa statues made of ceramic.

Kofun Period Haniwa Sculptures

After the periods of Antiquity, which we have analyzed in three periods, we can move on to the periods of Classical Japanese history.

Asuka-Nara Period (538-794 AD)

It is named after the Asuka region, 25 km south of Nara, and together with the Kofun period, it constitutes the Yamato period. During this period, Buddhism from China showed its influence on artworks. In 710, the capital was moved to Nara, the Nara period began and the influence of Buddhism increased. Buddhist temples were built and bronze Buddha statues were produced in abundance.

Nara Period Buda Sculpture

Heian Period (794-1185 AD)

The Heian period is the last chapter of classical Japanese history and is named after Heian-kyō, whose capital was present-day Kyoto. It is a period in Japanese history when Confucianism and other Chinese influences were at their peak. The Heian Period emphasized the arts, especially poetry and literature, and was the most important period for the development of non-religious art in Japan. The word "Heian" means "peace" in Japanese.

The Heian Period is considered a high point in Japanese culture. This period is also a time when the samurai class was on the rise.

It was during this period that the art of Maki-e emerged. Maki-e (literally: interspersed painting (or design)) is a Japanese decoration technique in which pictures, patterns and letters are drawn with lacquer on a lacquered surface and then sprinkled with metal powder such as gold or silver. The origin of the term maki-e is a combination of maki meaning "sprinkling" and e meaning "painting".

**Lacquer is a type of hard and often glossy coating or veneer applied to materials such as wood or metal. It is mostly made from resin derived from trees and waxes and has been used since ancient times.

"Genji Monogatari", or "The Story of Genji", considered to be the world's first novel, was written during this period (1010) by the female writer Murasaki Shikubu.

The world's firs novel / Murasaki Shikibu

Kamakura Period (1185-1333 AD)

This is the period when the huge Amida statues, seen only in Japan, were dismantled into bronze pieces and then reassembled.Around 1200, the Kei school, a Buddhist sculpture school, opened. The sculptures of this school are religious but with an interesting study of nature. A typical Baroque style can be compared to the naturalism of the 17th and 18th century in Europe. Applying a style of expression to sculpture that is faithful to the optical image, this approach is similar to, but long before, Western art. Based in Nara, it was the dominant school of Buddhist sculpture in Japan until the 14th century and remained influential until the 19th century. Unkei, a Japanese sculptor from the Kei school, specialized in Buddha statues and other important Buddhist figures. Unkei's early works are quite traditional and his style is similar to that of his father Kōkei. Today, Unkei is the best known of the Kei artists, and many art historians consider him "the most distinguished member".

Wooden sculpture made by Unkei

Muromachi Period (1336-1573)

The art form of this period is painting and calligraphy. The most important developments in Japanese painting during the Muromachi years were the assimilation of the Chinese ink monochrome tradition, known in Japanese as suiboku-ga or sumi-e. Towards the end of the 15th century, the painter Masanobu (1453-1490) founded the Kano School. Many Japanese artists took this name. However, the artists seen under this name have no family ties. This is actually a purely Chinese tradition. The artists of the Kano School have always inspired each other. During this period, paintings were made that were seen on the screens in houses.


Based on the philosophy of Wabi sabi, Kintsugi (kin=gold, tsugi=joining), the art of joining with gold, was introduced in Japan in the 15th century for ceramic teacups used in tea ceremonies. The broken ceramic product was glued by mixing a kind of resin (urushi resin) and gold powder. In other words, it is not only repairing an object whose existence has been damaged, whose integrity has been disrupted, and which may have become unusable, but also adding value to it and making it more valuable (Wabi-sabi).

For example, a simple ceramic plate is broken and broken into multiple pieces. These pieces were reassembled using gold in line with the Kintsugi philosophy. In this case, the ceramic plate becomes much more valuable than it was before it was broken. First of all, gold, which is a precious metal, increases the material value of the plate, but art and skillful reassembly techniques are also involved. In addition, the plate now becomes a whole that has a lived experience and is reborn from the breakage of many pieces.

History of Kintsugi

The known history of Kintsugi dates back to the 15th century. According to legend, a favorite teacup of the Japanese army commander Ashikoga "Shogun" Yoshimasa broke and the commander sent it to China to be repaired. The cup was repaired with a metal stapler, but the commander was not satisfied.

The Japanese search for a different and aesthetic ceramic repair. Finally, local craftsmen found a solution. They filled the cracks with urushi resin used in the art of Maki-e and covered it with gold dust.

In this way, they made the Shogun's favorite tea bowl more unique and valuable, and with this form of repair, the bowl became one of the Shogun's favorites again, and a new art form was born.

Ceramic incense burner repaired with Kintsugi technique

Edo Period (1603-1868)

This period begins with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate by Tokugawa Ieyasu in Edo (Tokyo) on March 24, 1603 and ends with the beginning of the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868. From 1605 onwards, the Tokugawas increased the wealth of the bourgeois class and merchants in Japan. Thus, a new style, a school dominated painting (Ukiyo-e, Rex School).

Ukiyo-e means woodcut painting. Japanese painters carved their brush drawings on wood with simple tools, inked the carved surface and printed them on a paper made of rice bran pulp. The theme of these paintings was to depict the day. Mostly entertainment, theater scenes, beautiful women and kubuki artists were depicted. Woodcut art had a great influence on 20th century European painting.

The Japanese applied woodblock prints not only in black and white but also in color.

Hokusai(1760-1849), one of the important artists of this period, is known as ukiyo-e artist with his strong and original personality. He is famous for his print book 36 Views of Mount Fuji. It consists of 46 images of Mount Fuji drawn from different locations and in different seasons.

Hiroshige (1793-1858) was influenced by Hokusai, but he changed the angle of view and tried to put the horizon too low. Hiroshige has a very deep perspective. He is known for his "100 Hundred Famous Landscapes of Edo".

Hiroshige- Ukiyo-e

Japanese art contains realistic and observational features. They transferred their aesthetics from writing to painting. This led to the emergence of brush impressionism and Westerners adopted this characteristic together with the impressionists.

According to some sources, it was the Japanese who invented the Impressionism movement and it spread to the West with the Meiji Restoration in Japan in 1868.

Who knows?

Influences of Japanese Art on Western Art

In 1848, gold prospecting begins in the American West. San Francisco, which had a population of 200 people in 1840, reached 36 thousand in 1853 with the gold rush. The people who settled here started to do agriculture and fishing with the increasing population. Just across the coast is Japan and fishermen approach its shores to catch the more abundant fish in Japanese waters. The Japanese get angry at this situation and do not want foreigners to enter their waters and treat the fishermen badly.

The reason for this was that Emperor Tokugawa closed Japan to the outside world in 1600. No one could enter Japan and no one could leave Japan. They only had an agreement with the Netherlands to trade in a small bay in Nagasaki. This closure, which lasted for almost 250 years, led to the vulnerability and alienation of the Japanese people from the outside world.

In 1853, the US government began to pressure Japan to open its coasts to trade. In 1854, under the command of an admiral named Perry, 9 warships entered Japan and Japan accepted the treaty.

Hearing this, European countries came to the Japanese shores in turn, exerted pressure and Japan had to make a deal with them as well. Capitulations were signed. As a result of being closed for 250 years, Japan was very weak and vulnerable to foreign countries.

In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the West and slowly began to reflect its art. Especially France starts to be very influenced by Japanese art. The fashion of Japonism spreads. The West, which previously bought Japanese art only as decoration and included it in its fashion, gradually began to perform art in this style.

In 1868, Manet's paintings are in Western style, but when we look at the background, we always see Japanese decorative materials. Like wood prints, ceramics, fans and kimonos.

After a while, this fashion started to interact and he started to paint Japanese-style paintings with deep perspective.

Manet and Van Gogh were particularly influenced by Hiroshige, and it is thought that the Impressionist movement emerged as a result of this influence.

Van Gogh's Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige) of 1887 is both an homage to the Japanese artist Hiroshige and a foreshadowing of Van Gogh himself. It is also an important testament to how Japanese art influenced and radically changed Western art.

Van Gogh-Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree (AfterHiroshige)

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration ended the 265-year feudal regime of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The Meiji period is the period in Japanese history that spanned the reign of Emperor Meiji from October 23, 1868 to July 30, 1912. This period represents the first half of the Japanese Empire, during which Japanese society transitioned from an isolated feudal society to its modern form.

During this period, Japan first opened up to the world and then entered a period of industrialization and militarization.

The emperor's control of existing political power and the modernization of the military contributed to Japan's emergence as a major imperial power in the Asia Pacific region and the establishment of a colonial empire after the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and World War I. The economic and political turmoil that affected many countries around the world, including the Great Depression of 1929, led to the rise of militarism, nationalism and totalitarianism, embodied in the ideology of Japanese-style fascism, also called Shōwa nationalism, which eventually resulted in Japan's entry into an alliance with the Axis powers and its occupation of large parts of Asia starting before the Second World War.

Due to the influence of fascism, there is no longer any individual and original artistic production in the field of art.

It was only in the 1950s, after the Second World War, that Japan began to produce original works of art again.

For example, an art group called Gutai was established.

But this process, Contemporary Japanese Art, will be the subject of my next article.




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