Japanese Art – Painting

If Western people expect to discover any work of realistic merit in Japanese painting they will be disappointed. This is because imagination and suggestiveness are more prominent in Japanese painting than in Western painting.

The lines, colors, notan (chiaroscuro) and space compositions are used more for externalizing subjective imagination, and not so much as the means for producing realistic forms of things as in Western painting.

Beginners are therefore advised to see as many examples as possible of various pictures produced in different ages. Japanese paintings of each age have their respective characteristics and special interests of their own days as in foreign paintings. Lines, colors, notan or chiaroscuro have their own expressions of different cultural background in various ages.

Western critics may think that Japanese painting is a mere imitation of Chinese painting. But this is not true. Japanese painters no doubt received a great influence from Chinese painting, but they created their own to express their own ideas as fostered by their cultural environments.

Subjects of Japanese painting are doubtless often puzzling to foreign students of Japanese art. Here, Japanese landscape painting greatly differs from the landscape painting of the West. The imagination and technical skill worked into Japanese landscape paintings are naturally derived from Japanese thought which cannot fail to appear strange to Westerners.

The most difficult of all subjects are those of Buddhist paintings. Their colors, lines and forms have a symbolic meaning inherent to Buddhism.

In the following pages some prominent examples of Japanese painting developed in different ages will be selected and described to help the readers to appreciate Japanese painting.

The most primitive of Japanese paintings is found on the walls of chambers of burial-mounds built in the Archaic Period on Kyushu Island. They consist mainly of totemic symbols and geometric patterns in red, green, white and yellow.

In the middle of the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced through Korea, and the new style of painting was brought in with many other new crafts. The most prominent example of early Buddhist painting is that on the panels of Tamamushi-no-zushi shrine which was done in the reign of the Empress Suiko (592-628), and is still preserved in the Golden Hall of the Horyu-ji monastery, near Nara. The picture shows landscapes and Buddhist figures whose faces and limbs are slender and whose coloring is quite simple. These are characteristic features of the Chinese school of Six Dynasties.

In the 8th century, painting made a new and noteworthy development under the influence of the Indian chiaroscuro style introduced from the Tang Dynasty of China. The best example of this style will be seen in the famous fresco of the Horyu-ji monastery. The style dosely resembles the wall painting of the Cave temple of Ajanta in India. The figures in this painting are rotund and human, while those of the preceding period were romantic and transcendental.

However, the highest and most representative example of this period will be found in the figure of Kichijo-ten, the Goddess of Beauty, painted in rich colors on a hempen cloth. (Fig. 3) The Goddess appears a noble lady. Her curved eyebrows, full cheeks and graceful pose suggest beautiful womanhood as conceived by the Chinese of the rank Dynasty. In this picture, human beauty is blended with spiritual joy in earthly feeling. The painting is owned by the Yakushi-ji monastery, but now preserved in the Imperial Household Museum at Nara.

In the 9th century, a new style of painting was brought in with the introduction of Chinese esoteric Buddhism. The style developed along the lines of the Buddhist pictures which were painted by priest-painters of high rank.

Ryokai-mandara of Jingo-ji, portraits of Ryumyo and Ryuchi, both preserved in the ©nshi Kyoto Museum of Art ; the twelve figures of Jüni-ten from the Saidai-ji monastery in the Nara Imperial Household Museum ; and the famous Red Fudo owned by the Myo-o-in chapel on Mt. Koya (Fig. 4); are all representative examples of the painting of the Heian Period. The broadness of composition and the out-lines of figures, drawn with the so-called ” steel cord” (tessera) lines, are the characteristic features of these paintings.

As the court nobles in the later Heian Period (894-1185) had peace, wealth and political power, then naturally sought pleasure and comfort and were mindful of etiquette and ceremonies. Yet they were deeply religious,. and their faith was keenly attracted by the Pure Land doctrine, in place of the philosophical doctrine of Shingon and Tendai which had prospered in the preceding century. But their interests mostly consisted of incantations of the scriptures, along with a pompous ritual. The picture representing Amide, the main Buddha of the Pure Land and his attendant Bodhisattvas, all descending from the heavenly Paradise, were most popular among them. The contour, delicate lines and re-fined color scheme of such Buddhist paintings visually ex-pressed the people’s passive attitude towards life.

The most typical example of such a subject is that famous painting representing Amida and the Twenty-five Bodhisattvas, which is preserved in the Reiho-kwan Museum on Mount Koya, and is attributed to the priest Eshin who founded the Pure Land doctrine, and who is well known as the priest-painter of that subject. The outlines of all the sacred figures are built up entirely with fine delicate lines drawn with wonderfully regular power, and colored red. The main figure is handsomely decorated with designs in fine cut gold. But in all the figures of Bodhisattvas, much human expression will be seen in their faces and bodies, as well as in the designs and colors of the costumes influenced by the court life of the day. The variety of colors and the graceful forms of the sacred figures mark the full glory of the feminine beauty characteristic of the later Heian Period. Such was the vision of the next world which appealed to the heart of the court nobles of the day. The following pictures are also important examples of Buddhist paintings of the later Heian Period.

Amida Triad with a Boy Attendant, from Hokke-ji nunnery. This is mounted as a kakemono in three pieces and preserved in the Nara Imperial Household Museum.

Fugen-Bosatsu or the Bodhisattva of All-Pervading Wisdom, mounted as a kakemono, colored on silk, owned by the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum.

Amida and Bodhisattvas painted on door panels of Hoo-do or the Phoenix Hall, Uji near Kyoto.

The painting of purely lay-subjects made for the first time great development in the 10th century. Four picture scrolls illustrating the famous novel called Genji-Monogatari written by Murasaki Shikibu, still remain, one being owned by Baron Masuda and the rest in the Tokugawa Museum of Fine Art at Nagoya. They are unique examples of the pictures portraying the life of the nobility of the Heian Period, and representative of pictures developed entirely after the taste of Japanese nobles. Their outstanding characteristic is the beautiful contrast of gay coloring with fine delicate lines of the human figures, while the general effect is quiet and full of refined feminine beauty.

Other important examples, in which a similar style of painting may be seen, are found in illuminated manuscript copies of Buddhist scriptures dedicated to the Itsukushima shrine by Taira-no-Kiyomori, some of which are preserved in the `Onshi Kyoto Museum of Art, and also in the sutras written on fan-shaped paper, owned by the Shitenno-ji monastery in Osaka, and similar sutras owned by the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum.

It was also in the later Heian Period that there appeared some artists who specialized in painting, and several schools of painting developed—the Kose school in which Hirotaka was most eminent ; the Takuma school, the founding of which is attributed to Tamenari ; the Kasuga school, most of the names of whose members are unknown; and the Tosa school founded by Fujiwara Motomitsu.

The political change and the re-opened intercourse with China in the Kamakura Period (1186–1333) gave a new impetus to the development of painting. The most characteristic features of the new style of painting were the realism in form and color, whiles the lines are full of life and activity.

The painting produced in the Kamakura Period may be classified conveniently into three different kinds : Buddhist paintings, portraits and picture scrolls. In painting these different kinds of pictures new and old styles were combined ; and the definite style known by the name of yamato-e was thereby developed.

Yamagoshi-no-Mida or the Amida Triad rising over the Mountain, from the Konkai-Komyo-ji monastery, and preserved in the Onshi Kyoto Museum of Art, is an ex-ample of old style painted in the early Kamakura Period.

The figures of Juni-ten, or the Twelve Devas, preserved in the To-ji monastery at Kyoto, are representative examples in which may be studied the new style of Buddhist paintings which the Takuma school developed under the influence of the Sung style of China (Fig. 9). The lines are vigorously accentuated by an undulating touch of the brush, while the lines of the old school were drawn with restrained power. The colors are magnificent and full of contrasts. The air of tranquillity that prevailed in the preceding style was now transformed into one of movement.

In this period the most conspicuous development was made in the production of picture scrolls or emakimono. They were purely Japanese in their development, and were full of life in their vivid rendering of historical, legendary, and religious subjects, and the lives of venerable priests. In rolling out little by little by hand, the sequence of the story appears in succession with the writing descriptive of pictures as if it were a primitive moving picture. The existant examples of such scrolls are so numerous that this period is called the age of picture scrolls.

In the Imperial Household collection is one of the most famous picture scrolls. It is called Kasuga-Gongen-Reikenki, or the Miracle Records of the Kasuga Shrine (Fig. 10). It was painted by Takashina Takakane and is composed of twenty scrolls. It contains very realistic representations of customs and manners of the time, and this scroll is one of the representative picture scrolls produced in the later Kamakura Period. Makura-no-söshi emaki is also a rare example, part of which is reproduced on the cover.

The culture developed in the Muromachi Period (1334–1573) was closely associated with the doctrine of Zen Buddhism, and its characteristic feature is distinctly shown in painting.

At the beginning of this period, the new style of Chinese painting of the Sung and Yuan Dynasties were studied by such priests of Zen Buddhism as Kao, Mokuan, Mincho, Josetsu, Shaun and Sesshn. Among them Sesshn was the greatest landscape priest-painter in the Chinese style.

Generally speaking the paintings produced by them were highly charged with purity, simplicity and directness, the elaborate coloring and delicate curves of Heian and Kamakura periods being discarded for simple ink sketches. The subjects which attracted their interest were mostly landscapes, birds and flowers. According to the ideal of Zen artists, beauty or the true life of a thing is always hidden within rather than expressed. What they tried to do was not to display all that is seen, but to suggest the secret of infinity because of the limited power of any elaborate portrayal in revealing the infinite life and power of nature.

Therefore, the work by great masters of this school does not represent nature itself, but the expression of their ideals of nature. To them, it seems, there was neither high nor low, noble nor refined. They tried to see in a single flower or spray of bamboo the eternal life which permeates man and nature alike ; and then they strove to catch it with simple, bold strokes of their brush but with little color.

Fig. 11 reproduces his masterpiece representing a lands-cape under snow. It is sublime in feeling ; there is a grandeur and power in its lines.

About the same time as Sesshü there lived other masters who excelled in landscape painting. They were Noami, Geiami, Soami, Jasoku and Kano Masanobu. They all studied the style of Shubun and developed their own art.

However, Kano Masanobu (1453–1550) originated the Kano style. His son Motonobu was the most celebrated master painter in the later Muromachi Period. Motonobu did his best to bring the Japanese and the Chinese styles into perfect harmony, and he established the principle of the Kano school that had been founded by his father Masanobu. He painted landscapes on a large scale and mostly on sliding-screens or interior walls for decorative purposes. His greatest and most representative works are the pictures painted on the sliding-screens in the rooms of the Reiun-in of the Myoshin-ji monastery at Kyoto. The pictures have been peeled off and mounted as forty-nine kakemono. Some of them are preserved in the Onshi Kyoto Museum of Art and in the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum. In the Tokai-an chapel are also owned excellent examples of his work.

The decorative painting initiated by Masanobu and Motonobu made a striking development in the Momoyama Period (1574-4614), in which the magnificence of forms and the brightness of colors were appreciated by Hideyoshi and his generals. The Momoyama painting, developing in the field of architectural decoration, was applied mostly to walls and sliding-screens at the partitions of rooms. Popular subjects painted on them were pine, cherry, plum and willow trees of lofty forms ; and flowers and birds in rich colors on goldleaf.

Such taste and gratification of military nobles were most ably carried out by Kano Eitoku (1543–1590), the grandson of Motonobu, and Sanraku (1559-4635), the son of Eitoku in law.

Eitoku’s forte was the grandeur of his work. His style was filled with life and animation, with the dazzling brilliancy of colors expressing the heroic spirit of the times. One excellent example of his work is in the Imperial Household collection (Fig. 13). It is a pair of screens, on which lions are painted on gold leaf. The lions are fabulous in form but royal in aspect. The broad and gigantic composition and bright coloring well represent Eitoku.

The following are famous paintings attributed to Eitoku :

Sliding-screens with large snow-clad willow trees in the Hiun-kaku, Nishi-Hongwan-ji monastery, Kyoto ;

Folding-screen with hinoki tree, Tokyo Imperial House-hold Museum ;

Folding-screen with a hawk on a pine tree, Tokyo Imperial school of Fine Art..

Sanraku (1559–1635) excelled in painting colorful pictures that adorned walls and sliding-screens. His works are not so large as those by Eitoku, but they are more decorative. One of the best of his works is in the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum. It is a pair of screens painted with Chinese figures. Another excellent example of his work, representing trees, flowers and tigers, will be seen in the interior decoration of the Tenkyu-in chapel of the Myoshinji monastery at Kyoto.

At the Chijaku-in monastery at Kyoto there also remains a magnificent picture attributed to him, representing a cherry-tree in full bloom.

Besides Eitoku and Sanraku, Kaihoku Yüsho, Soga Chokuan, Unkoku Togan and Hasegawa Tohaku were also master painters of the Momoyama Period.

In the 17th century the center of painting was removed from Kyoto to Edo owing to the new establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate government at Edo (Tokyo).

The master painters of the Kano school still kept up the highest position in the world of painting all through the entire period of Edo. Among them Tannyn (1602-1674), was the greatest master. He was highly interested in the various styles of painting and mastered almost every branch of it. Finally, he effected a radical modification in the accepted canon, and gave a new life of great elegance and delicacy to the old Kano style. His success won him the honor of being the last one of the three greatest Kano masters, the other two having been Motonobu in the Muromachi Period and Eitoku in the Momoyama Period. In Fig. 16 is reproduced one of his paintings, which is owned by the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum

Besides Tannyn, Naonobu, Yasunobu, Kuzumi Morikage and Tsunenobu were also known as master painters of the Kanö school. But all the rest were simply bureaucratic painters strictly clinging to their traditional styles.

However, the paintings which appealed most to the people were the decorative and genre paintings. They represent the esthetic feeling of the masses.

The genre painting initiated by Matahei includes two kinds of pictures, one of which is painted by hand, and the other printed from blocks, which is known by the name ukiyo-e prints. It was, however, the ukiyo-e prints that first aroused the interest of Westerners in Japanese art. The favorite subject of the ukiyo-e print was famous beauties of the Yoshiwara or the gay quarters.. Next in favor came the representation of actors.

Hishikawa Moronobu (1638–1714) was the first great master who contributed to the development of both colored paintings and primitive prints of ukiyo-e.. He was specially fond of painting professional beauties, scenes of flower-viewing parties, and popular customs and manners in general. In the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum is a picture scroll which contains a number of his works painted at different times in colors on silk.

In the early 18th century, there developed a school called Kwaigetsudo, the artists of which usually painted by hand the professional beauties of the Yoshiwara. The founder of this school, Kwaigetsudo Ando and his followers, usually painted a woman alone, but sometimes added a shorter woman beside a tall one (Fig. 18). Miyagawa Choshun (1686-1756) was another famous painter who excelled in beautiful color-painting. His followers also for the most part did not produce color prints.

In the middle of the 18th century the beni-e color-print was produced. The principal color of the beni-e print is a soft vegetable pink. The pink is generally used in contrast with green, yellow and some other colors. Okumura Masanobu (1690–1768) and Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711–1785) were outstanding painters who produced a number of fine beni-e prints.

After beni-e, nishiki-e or ” Brocade Picture ” developed. In nishiki-e are so skilfully used a number of different complimentary hues and tints as to give a complicated, yet charmingly harmonious color scheme as a whole. In the development of brocade prints, Suzuki Harunobu (1718—1770) was the most meritorious pioneer painter. His style was studied further by Isoda Koryusai and Ippitsusai Buncho. The later 18th century was the golden age of brocade prints. In this golden age appeared such able masters as Katsukawa Shunsho, Toshusai Sharaku, Torii Kiyonaga, Kubo Shumman; Kitagawa Utamaro and Hosoda Eishi. The favorite subjects painted by these masters were usually beauties or actors. In Fig. 19 is reproduced an example of Harunobu’s work. He did not try to paint the real faces of individuals. His figures are highly idealistic and look like fairies who have just stepped out from the land of dreams. He tried to express their mental attitudes. To contrast his beauties, compare the beauty by Torii Kiyonaga (1753-1815), whose beauties are more realistic. His clothes envelop real women, not dreamy or ephemeral creatures like Harunobu’s. Harunobu’s creations are much more spiritual, more or less celestial, while Kiyonaga’s beauties are more human and sensuous in form and color..

In the early 19th century the art of engraving progressed even more, and the subject treated by ukiyo-e painters ex-tended to much broader fields. Landscapes, flowers and birds and contemporary customs and manners became favorite subjects. Noted painters who flourished in this period were Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Toyokuni, Utagawa Kunisada, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Ando Hiroshige.

Parallel with the ukiyo-e painting, the school of decorative painting developed remarkably. The school was initiated by Koetsu and Sotatsu in the earlier Edo Period, and culminated in the art of Korin in the Genroku era (1688—1704). The pictures by Sotatsu are rather simple, but full of originality.. His lines are usually lightly drawn in black ink and then have graceful curves, giving a soft and soothing feeling to his pictures. The most characteristic feature of his painting was its unique color scheme. He showed marvelous ability in contrasting various colors with black ink, and made his pictures highly decorative. In Fig. 21 is shown one of his masterpieces painted on a fan-shaped paper. Karin (1653–1716) was deeply indebted to Koetsu and Sotatsu, and became the most famous decorative painters in the Genroku era, the golden age of luxury for the commoners in the Edo Period. He left us quite a number of his masterpieces. One of them, owned by Count Tsugaru in Tokyo, is shown in Fig. 22. After him, Hoitsu (1759–1828) mastered Korin’s style. In the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum are his representative works. They are mounted as two picture scrolls painted with flowers and birds of four seasons in rich colors on silk.

In the 18th century there developed Literati painting (Nangwa, also called Bunjingwa). This appealed to the Chinese classical scholars. The painters of this school mostly painted landscapes, but they were fond of painting the impressions which Nature inspired in them. The chiaroscuro in ink plays an important part in their pictures ; and they have usually poems in Chinese inscribed above their pictures. The expression of poetic thought in black and white or light coloring was highly appreciated by the men of Chinese classical literature.

The following are the master painters of this school :

Gion Nankai (1677-1751) ; Sakai Hyakusen (1698-1753) ; Taiga-do (1723–1776), Buson (1716–1783), 25 ; Tani Buncho (1764–1841) ; Chikuden (1777–1835) ; Kwazan (1793-1841).

On the other hand, the realistic beauty of nature was also studied by painters of the Maruyama and Shijo schools, and attracted the interest of the general public. Okyo (1733-1795), founder of the Maruyama school, exhaustively studied from life people, flowers and birds, and became a great master of realism. He appears to have been the first to apply to Japanese painting the laws of perspective as developed in the West. In Fig. 26 is reproduced one of his masterpieces. He left a number of excellent works which are listed as national treasures.

The Shijo school was founded by Goshun, or Matsumura Gekkei (1752-1811), who was also a master painter of realism. Among his students were Keibun (1779-1843), and Toyohiko (1773-1845), who were noted painters.

Contemporary painting may be divided into two kinds, viz. native and Western styles. But we are here interested only in the genuinely Japanese style. However, the con-temporary painters of native style do not cling only to such old native styles as Tosa, Kano or Maruyama, but they study as many styles as they care, either native or foreign, to create their own styles.

In the Imperial Academy of Fine Art (Teikoku Bijutsuin) is the department for Japanese-style painting. The members of the Academy consist of Japanese artists with distinguished careers, who are appointed for life. Those in charge of Japanese painting divide themselves into two groups, one group of artists living in Tokyo, and the others in Kyoto. Those members in Tokyo are Kawai Gyokudo, Yokoyama Taikwan, Yüki Somei, Araki Juppo, Komuro Suiun, Matsuoka Eikyü, Kobayashi Kokei, Kawabata Ryushi, Kaburagi Kiyokata, Yasuda Yukihiko, Maeda Seison. Those in Kyoto are Takenouchi Seiho, Hashimoto Kwansetsu, Nishimura Goun, Nishiyama Suisho, Kawamura Manshü, Matsubayashi Keigetsu and Kikuchi Keigetsu.

Besides the Imperial Academy of Fine Art, there are several important art organizations for the advancement of Japanese style of painting. They are the Nihon-Bijutsuin, or the Institute of Japanese Art, presided over by Yokoyama Taikwan, the Seiryü-sha founded by Kawabata Ryushi, etc.