Please see The Nature of Japanese Art, Part One (September 2019) for background information about the influence of Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism on Japanese art: Each Dewdrop on the Grass Reflects the Vastness of Moonlight – The Nature of Japanese Art, Part One
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Japanese artist Nikyoko Ikuta uses only two materials in her work: glass and light.
“I am captivated by the complexity of light as it reflects, refracts, and passes through broken cross sections of plate glass. In 1980 I began making artwork by laminating sheets of glass using adhesive and exposing the cross sections. My motifs are derived from feelings of gentleness and harshness, fear, limitless expansion experienced through contact with nature, images from music, ethnic conflict, the heart affected by joy and anger, and prayer.”
The transient elements of Japanese art – shadow, light, space, time – are often intimate sources of spiritual insight, reminders to embrace the inescapability of impermanence. A deeper understanding of these qualities can be illustrated through several Japanese aesthetic concepts, such as mono no aware, wabi, sabi, shibusa, yūgen, and ma.
The concept of mono no aware has roots in Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and refers to the “pathos” (aware) of “things” (mono) due to their transience. It’s a feeling of deep sensitivity that washes over someone while perceiving the paradoxical beauty caused by the imperfection or finite nature of things.
For example, consider the Japanese custom of viewing cherry trees in bloom. Their blossoms are no more beautiful than those of other spring-blooming trees, but awareness of their fragility and characteristic brevity heightens appreciation of viewing them and evokes a gentle melancholy at their passing.
In this image, a man is moved by the experience of viewing cherry blossoms in the moonlight to write a poem. The vivid colors and style of his kimono identify the figure as an onnagata, a male actor who specializes in portraying the female roles within the all-male casts of kabuki theater.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi; Cherry Blossoms on the Sumida River: The Actor Mizuki Tatsunosuke Viewing the Moon; Meiji Period (1868-1912), 1891; Color woodcut
A swallow turns its head in mid-flight to watch a single fluttering cherry blossom petal. The similar shape and color of the bird’s head, chest, and petal remind the viewer that even in nature’s most fleeting moments, there are inherent elegant relationships.
Tsubaki Chinzan; Swallow and Cherry Blossom Petal; Edo Period (1615-1868), 1852; Ink and color on silk. Kachō-ga is a type of Japanese painting that depicts birds and flowers. Yohaku, the blank space frequently present in kachō-ga, suggests nature’s simplicity and harmony.
Wabi, a notion of understated beauty, is present the chashitsu, an architectural space designed for tea ceremonies. Unlike unweathered and pristine architecture, which was seen as cold and distant, this unassuming structure contradicts the idea that beauty must be grand and abundant. In the intimate setting of the tearoom and surrounding garden, participants temporarily withdraw from the fast pace and pressures of everyday life.
The cedar thatched roof, nandina and red pine with the bark intact for the pillars, bamboo stalks for the ceiling and rainspouts, earth-colored plaster walls, and rough, unfinished vertical posts are rustic, imperfect, and modest.
Along a small garden path leading to the tearoom, stripes of dry sand suggest waves on the surface of a motionless ocean.
In his book In Praise of Shadows (1933), Tanizaki Jun’ichirō likens an alcove in a Japanese room to an ink wash painting: “An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into it forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness, immutable tranquility holds sway.”
Sabi (rustic patina) Over time, the natural elements of the teahouse and the implements used during the ceremony acquire a beauty that can only come with use and age.
Before taking the first sip of tea, participants remain mindful in the present moment by slowly and carefully looking at their chawan (teabowl), noticing the warmth it brings to their hands, and the color of the bright green matcha tea against the clay. Noting the cracks and other changes that occurred as the chawan aged honors the artist and the previous encounters between Tea Masters and guests.
Every aspect of the tea ceremony is intended to remind the participants that each moment in life, even if routine, is a singular occasion that cannot recur in exactly the same way; savor consciously.
Upon the rough, uneven grain of the six-hundred-year-old simple wooden sign on the teahouse, an inscription reads Sun Ka Raku, which translates to Evanescent Joys.
Shibusa refers to simple and unpretentious beauty. Subtle details, for example in the textures and patterns, balance contrasting aesthetic concepts – simple and complex, elegant and rough, reflection and shadow.
In bamboo amimono (plaiting), bamboo strips with various widths and thicknesses are interwoven together to create patterns and forms of interchanging rough and smooth, open and closed, light and shadow.
For Spring Tide, Fujinuma used nemagaridake, a dwarf bamboo that is very flexible. It took about three months to weave the bamboo into this intricate twill pattern with bundled elements.
The flawlessness of the sheer walls and the uniformity of the clear glaze, techniques that took years to perfect, have made Kawase Shinobu one of Japan’s most renown celadon artists.
Celadon is a term that refers to the transparent blue-green glaze used on ceramics and to the object that has been so glazed.
The balance of contrasts – light and shadow, curved and pointed, wide and thin – in the vase’s trumpet-shaped mouth suggest a calla lily. The edges of its petals gracefully curve outward.
Yūgen is a rare grace that is beyond what can be consciously attained or conceptualized. Author Kamo no Chōmei (c. 1155-1216) described yūgen “like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.” Yūgen is not an allusion to another world; it is a profound emotional response to the mysterious depths of this world.
Although the object is important, its aesthetic value also lies in the artist’s process of creating of the work. In the following example, the artist had to consider the placement of ink and control its movement and seepage into the silk. Imagine that while meditating, you’re trying to spill red wine on a lightly colored silk cloth with perfect artistic control.
Traces of quickly applied brush lines delineate fishermen, a boat, and a mountain. The center exemplifies the “splashed ink” technique, where dark ink is applied rapidly in spontaneous washes, splashes, flings, or drips over still‑wet, light layers of ink. Here, the resulting lack of well‑defined contour lines and explicit details create a soft, diffuse effect that suggests the surrounding vastness.
Neither reckless nor accidental, the technique is difficult to control, especially when executed on silk. Regarded as the highest form of expression, the artist enters a meditative state to negate the self in order to be continuous with the process of an image captured in the midst of its own becoming.
Ma has been described as a pause in time, an interval, or negative space – a place holder within which things can stand out and have meaning.
Kano Naonobu, White Heron and Lotus; Edo Period (1615-1868), First half of 1600s; Ink on paper; mounted as one section of a triptych of hanging scrolls. In East Asian art, the white heron and lotus, which grows and blooms from murky waters, symbolize purity.
At the bottom of the scroll, a light wash of ink conveys a shallow pond where a white heron stands on one foot.
Behind the heron, the flat surface of the pond is tilted forward so the viewer can see three lotus plants. Subtle differences of tone (light and dark) distinguish the upper and lower surfaces of their flowers, leaves, and stems.
The lotus immediately behind the heron is past full bloom. Dark and light ink washes, applied while the first layer of ink was still wet, create partly submerged leaves and petals. Its bent stem can be seen under the pond’s sparkling surface.
With stem standing firmly up under the pond surface, the second lotus presents its face to the light.
Yet to bloom, the third lotus plant’s stem is barely suggested by a thin vertical line.
The Ma, the spaces intentionally left unpainted at the top and between brushstrokes, indicate the movement, speed, and the rhythm of the brush markings over time. Ma isn’t absence; it’s the relationship between elements that offers a space for what is possible.
Reconsidering “the impossible” changed the course of art history. In 1639, after a period of widespread trade, piracy, war, and a clash of religious beliefs, the leader of the last Japanese feudal military government instituted Sakoku, an isolationist foreign policy that severely limited relations and trade with other countries. Nearly all foreigners were barred from entering Japan, and very few people were permitted to leave the country.
It came to an end in the 1850s when U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet of ships steamed into the Bay of Edo (Tokyo) and forced Japan to open its ports to international trade.
The colorful prints, so common that they were used to wrap commercial goods heading to Europe, became the first Japanese art seen in the West.
Katsushika Hokusai; Kirifuri Waterfall at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province; Edo Period (1615-1886), c. 1832-33; Color woodcut
Seeking to expand commercial ties, Japan exhibited its virtually unknown goods and art – kimonos, fans, parasols, lacquerware, screens, prints, ceramics, grooming kits, grass hats, and jackets – at the World’s Fairs in London in 1862 and in Paris in 1867.
Artists in the West were stunned. Suddenly, all of the rules that had been taught in Western art academies for hundreds of years seemed old-fashioned.
Avant-garde artists in Europe began to collect Japanese art.
Claude Monet’s collection of Japanese prints in his home in Giverny, France.
Inspired, they began to reimagine what was possible.
Left: Katsushika Hokusai; Under the Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa; Edo Period (1615-1868), c. 1830-31; and Right: Claude Monet; Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny; 1899
Left: Kitagawa Utamaro I; The Hour of the Horse (11 AM – 1 PM); Edo Period (1615-1868), c. 1794-95 and Right: Mary Stevenson Cassatt; The Letter, 1890-91. Cassatt adapted certain novel elements of style from Japanese color woodcuts, such as skewed perspectives, firm outlines, and decorative patterns in her work. Even the demure gesture seen here, that of an envelope brought to the lips to be sealed, derives from Japanese prints that show a geisha biting a handkerchief flirtatiously.
Left: Utagawa Hiroshige I; The Great Bridge – A Sudden Shower at Atake; Edo Period (1615-1868), 1857 and Right: Vincent van Gogh; Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige), 1887; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Japanese printmaking was one of Vincent’s main sources of inspiration – he collected hundreds of them and said that the prints taught him a new way of looking at the world. Like the prints, he began to enlarge objects in the foreground, empty the middle ground, reduce the importance of the horizon, and abruptly crop the elements of the picture at the edge.
Left: Yoshimi Rogetsu; Lotus in Ink-Painting Style, with Poems; 1800s; Color woodcut and Right: Designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany; Vase, c. 1905; Favrile glass. Art Nouveau (“new art”), also known as the Glasgow Style or Jugendstil, was a reaction against the cluttered designs and compositions of Victorian-era decorative arts. The flowing, natural forms and curves resembling the stems and blossoms of plants that were found in Japanese wood-block prints are key elements in this style. The trailed decoration on the Tiffany vase above creates the effect of foliage and flowers suspended or submerged in water.
– Meighan Maley
All of the art works in this post, except for van Gogh’s Bridge in the Rain, are in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, USA.
Buddhism in Japan http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat16/sub182/item589.html
Chinese Brush Painting https://www.asia-art.net/chinese_brush.html
Chinese Calligraphy https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm
Contemporary Bamboo https://www.curatorscorner.com/2016/05/contemporary-bamboo.html
Japanese Art (c.14,500 BCE – 1900); Guide to the Arts & Crafts of Japan http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/east-asian-art/japanese-art.htm
Japanese Confucian Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-confucian/
Kawase Shinobu https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/72754
Parkes, Graham and Loughnane, Adam, “Japanese Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/japanese-aesthetics/
Philadelphia Museum of Art Website https://www.philamuseum.org
Philadelphia Museum of Art Handbook
Raku Ware https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raku_ware
When Less is More: Japanese Concept of Ma, Minimalism and Beyond https://wawaza.com/blogs/when-less-is-more-japanese-concept-of-ma-minimalism-and-beyond/
The Japanese Tea Ceremony https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jtea/hd_jtea.htm