Japanese art has it's own unique style and quirkiness, covering many different movements from the last few centuries. This website concentrates mostly on the 17th to 19th centuries, from which our preferred Japanese art comes.
That said, in recent years there has also been great work from newer modern art movements and these will be covered briefly as well. Countryside scenes are frequent in most international art, and particularly so in Japan, as they have been for many centuries. Mount Fuji, for example, appears in the work of artists again and again, often depicted in a variety of styles as art movements continue to develop. The Japanese countryside can often include tall mountains alongside free-flowing rivers and this cross-valley scenery can be found in much of the early work of Japanese and also Chinese painters. Earlier, more traditional, techniques used large amounts of dark ink strokes, but slowly more and more other colours were added in and this lifted the beauty yet further. Japanese art history itself is extraordinarily diverse and rich, and here we examine the main highlights from across a thousand years of creativity and innovation.
Whilst the content and style of art from this region has impressed the world for many centuries, their technical innovations were also just as important. Various print methods rose to prominence over a period of years that would then be taken up by artists abroad. Others would collect some of their work after having it imported by sea, with Europeans being particularly fascinated by the creativity of Japanese artists. Some of the most famous European painters, for example, would collect, study and even copy original prints and incorporate some of the ideas into their own work, just as others had done with African and South American influences. It was harder to source information about other cultures in previous centuries, but today the global media ensures that Japan itself will also bring in influences from abroad into their own art scene as cultural exchange continues to draw the world's cultures closer together, in a spirit of a better understanding of each other.
The key focus of this website is specifically on famous Japanese paintings, particularly from the likes of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro, but the sphere of art is, of course, much wider than just that. It is the ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints that are the best known internationally, partly because of how they were collected right around the world. Many other notable techniques were also used, however, and additionally there was significant contributions within other disciplines such as architecture, ceramics, antiques and also calligraphy. The Japanese produced a truly rich culture which also held many unique aspects because of the country's nature as being cut off from the rest of the world for long periods of time. This allowed them to keep a relative purity to their ideas and avoid drifting towards other foreign influences until more recently. Even besides the art, you will find further examples of this uniqueness with cuisine and also Japanese society more generally.
The development of Japanese culture has been closely tied with the nation's relationship with the outside world. Various short phases of external influence have come about before then being given time to bed in whilst Japan was closed off for an extended period after that. We see that with Buddhism which came to the country in around the 7th and 8th centuries, from China, before the two were then apart for some years. The break would then allow other ideas to be formulated within the country itself, and the two could work alongside each other effectively. You will also see the connection within the Japanese language too, which contains elements of imported and home grown characteristics, just as you will find within many European dialects. The nation would then change again in the late 15th century, after which secular art would dominate. By the 19th century there was a cultural exchange with the west which continues to send influence in both directions, which is even more so the case today.
One must first say that painting is considered the most important art form within Japan by most of its residents. Sculpture was traditionally linked to Buddhism, and so it lost support when religious influence on society more generally would start to wain. Contemporary art has brought a greater focus on illustration, particularly forms of cartoon, but it is the traditional paintings which retain the respect the most of those looking to learn more about the full breadth of Japanese art history. Pottery would also serve an important role as an export business, with items sent all around the world for an extended period, giving many their first taste of Japanese art through various designs on their plates and cups. They would save the best designs for themselves, however, making a visit to this exciting country always highly worthwhile. There were also important developments in garden design, with many principles from it being spread into international education in horticulture.
The Japanese people, traditionally, would actually write with brushstrokes, making painting a truly natural art discipline for them. It was only the influence of the west that brought about the use of pen instead, as well as the faster nature of society which made it far more suitable within the present day. Calligraphy would therefore become an art form in itself and examples of it can be treated in the same way as a landscape painting. Many of the most famous artists would also use calligraphy as an avenue of artistic expression and other pieces are displayed for their historic importance too. The resourceful Japanese would also take on antiquities with the same level of innovation and imagination, achieving success in a wide range of different materials, including different metals, textiles and enamels. They are now to be found in collections of most major international museums, with a particular global interest in Japanese art continuing to be very strong, as also shown in the high prices achieved at auction when any of these historic items come up for sale.
Japan's Most Famous Artists
Hokusai and Hiroshige are the most famous artists for those who study traditional Japanese art. Their respective work provides many of the iconic images found in the modern media, such as Great Wave off Kanagawa and Fine Wind Clear Morning. The content that they used also feels truly Japanese, with landscape scenes and other reflections of their country and culture which are just as charming as they are technically impressive. The colours are frequently bright, providing palettes that remind Europeans of the Impressionist movement. Finally, there is also a connection to nature and particularly beautiful flowers that was sometimes forgotten within European art up to about the 1850s, because of the dominance of male artists who tended to address other themes within their work. It was only upon seeing the majestic beauty of Japanese prints that the likes of Monet and Van Gogh would start to cover these themes themselves. Some years later these beautiful scenes of the countryside would also encourage those from outside Japan to visit for the first time, when previously they might have been entirely unaware of the natural beauty of this part of the world.
Ukiyo-e in Japanese means "pictures of the floating world". It dominated from the 17th to 19th century and perhaps marked the point at which this nation's art was at its most beautiful, most innovative and also most charming. It took in content such as female portraits, as well as flower still lifes and also sprawling landscapes. Its contributors were famous for producing large series of designs that would cover a particular theme in multiple iterations, such as with Hokusai's One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji or Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Wealth would spread around certain Japanese cities and many started to add these paintings to their own homes, normally as printed copies which made them affordable to the masses for the first time. It was a time when leisure time could be enjoyed for the first time and people also had money for other forms of expression, such as decorating their own homes and gardens. The Impressionists in France would also help to illustrate the changing behaviour of European society, focusing at times on the activities of the middle classes who were now able to take holidays and enjoy hobbies at the weekend.
Influence on European Art
There has always been a bias within the west towards Ukiyo-e paintings, as opposed to the other rich elements of Japanese art. This has encouraged an interest in its great exponents, whilst perhaps unfairly ignoring those involved in other disciplines. It has also greatily impacted just what we, in the west, consider as typical of Japanese art. The list of artists within Europe who collected or studied these great names is almost endless and there was a particular impact within France, with all of Degas, Manet, Monet and Toulouse Lautrec all showing clear influences from the Asian nation. Indeed, they would openly acknowledge this, even encouraging others to enjoy this genre, just as they had done. At this time, around the mid to late 1850s, one would be considered middle class and educated were they to openly discuss the merits of other continents, though these European painters were less interested in appearances, and much more in developing their own work as far as possible. At a time when colour was becoming the most critical consideration, it would become necessary to look outside the boundaries of one's own continent in order to understand new possibilities and incorporate them as appropriate.