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Throughout the history of Japan art of all forms has played a large role in the culture and is very significant to demonstrating their religious practices and beliefs. One of the major themes within Japanese art is nature, for example clouds, mountains, the oceans, rivers, plants, flowers, and animals. The concepts of the different elements of nature have a strong presence within many pieces of Japanese art. With that they carry a significant meaning to both the cultural history of Japan and religious beliefs that are held high within Japan.
Much of the art that is significant to Japanese history comes out of the Edo Period. This period was occurred in 1615-1868 and it was a period full of important developments under the Tokugawa family (Victoria and Albert Museum). It was during this period where developments in art, culture and social life were made. It was said “Although Japan remained a basically agrarian society, towns and cities grew, and craft production flourished.
Improved transport and communication networks meant that for the first time even the most remote areas had access to goods produced in other parts of the country” (Victoria and Albert Museum) this leads many to believe this is why a great amount of Japanese artwork is complete at this time. Also, during this period Japan began a period of social isolation. This period of social isolation gave the Japanese the opportunity to focus of developing their culture and helping it to continue to grow a flourish without any influences from outside factors.
In an essay by The Met stated, “In Japan’s self-imposed isolation, traditions of the past were revived and refined, and ultimately parodied and transformed in the flourishing urban societies of Kyoto and Edo.” (Department of Asian Art) thus showing the benefits that the isolation had on the Japanese culture.
One piece of art that truly embodies the theme of naturalism is The Great Wave created by artist Katsushika Hokusai. This particular artwork was created around 1830-1832 during the Edo period in Japan. The Great Wave is a Polychrome woodblock print with details that truly exemplifies the theme of nature (The Met). In order to produce a woodblock print painting there were many steps that went into producing the image itself.
A woodblock print image is first designed by the artist on paper and then transferred to a thin, partly transparent paper. Following the lines on the paper, now pasted to a wooden block usually of cherry wood, the carver chisels and cuts to create the original in negative—with the lines and areas to be colored raised in relief. Ink is applied to the surface of the woodblock. Rubbing a round pad over the back of a piece of paper laid over the top of the inked board makes a print Polychrome prints were made using a separate carved block for each color, which could number up to twenty. To print with precision using numerous blocks on a single paper sheet, a system of placing two cuts on the edge of each block to serve as alignment guides was employed. Paper made from the inner bark of mulberry trees was favored, as it was strong enough to withstand numerous rubbings on the various woodblocks and sufficiently absorbent to take up the ink and pigments. Reproductions, sometimes numbering in the thousands, could be made until the carvings on the woodblocks became worn. ( Department of Asian Art).
This particular woodblock print is of a large wave with different colors thus it is considered polychrome. In the painting we see large waves and two boats with people who look as if they are taking shelter. The waves are created using two different shades of blue to help create depth and show the immense power of the wave. The waves also have white foam at the top with harsh lines helping to create the arch of the wave. From this is it can be assumed that because of the large waves and few smaller waves the ocean is quite rough and because the people are taking shelter the waves must have great power. It looks as if when the wave hit the boat the wave quickly recovers and shows how much power it truly holds, showing great resiliency. The first thing the viewers eye is drawn to is the wave but soon after the attention of the eye is drawn straight back to a mountain which according to the description of the piece is Mount Fuji which in reality is a grand mountain, but when compared to the large wave it appears quite small. The wave itself carries great meaning and the artist was able to convey that through both form and color.
As stated above Mount. Fuji is a grand mountain both because of its height and its value to the Japanese culture. In the painting Mt. Fuji by artist Tani Bunchō in 1802 also done within the Edo period in Japan shows the great power of the mountain. This painting was created on a Hanging Scroll (The Met). The focal point of the painting itself is the Mount Fuji as during the Edo Period the mountain was a sacred landmark within the Japanese culture. This painting was created with black ink using different shades and tones of blacks and greys in order to create depth and give the mountain itself form. In the description of the painting it stated that “the line of rolling clouds suggest that the painting is based on a sketch drawn with the mountain directly in view” (The Met). With the clouds where they are it truly exemplifies the idea of how large the mountain truly is. That being said throughout history the role Mount Fuji has played in the culture and community surrounding it has varied but one thing has reminded constant , that being that the mountain is there standing, and it is unmoving.
Along with major natural elements like mountains and waves, both flowers and wild life played an important role in Japanese’s art. An example of a work of art that shows this is Carp and Cherry Blossom Petals in a Stream this was done by Katsu Jagyoku during the Edo Period in Japan. This specific painting was done around 1766-78. A unique feature about this paining it was created on a hanging scroll in ink and was had colored silk. It features a carp and cherry blossoms in a stream showing harmony between animals and plants. In the stream there are five cherry blossom petals floating on top of the surface of the stream and the carp looks as if it is turning to look back at those petals floating atop of the water. In the stream the artist is able to convey movement with the use of lines creating ripples in the water that could be from a possible breeze as there is a tree with branches look as if they are swaying back and forth. The artist also uses slight variations in color in the water to help give the water the element of movement. The use of color also becomes important in giving these elements a naturalistic appearance for example into the Carp. The use of different colors thought the Carps body gives the viewer the chance to relate the painting back to a real Carp. In the painting the artist Katsu Jagyoku paid close attention to detail when you look closely on the body of the Carp the viewer can see the scales on the fish and the use of different colored ink the make it look life like and give the fish the element of movement as it was turning back to look at the petals. On the sides of the stream there was the use of darker shades of brown to make it seem as if the land is sloping downward to meet with the water and the tall grass that was growing aids to give it the effect, again making it look quite realistic. Katsu Jagyoku also used a pale pink ink for the cherry blossom petals to draw attention away from the dark browns, greens , and tan inks used to create the scene.
These three artworks have one thing common between them all, that being the theme of the natural features present. Each of those natural features have a meaning behind them that was carried out by the artist but was most likely influenced by the different religious beliefs such as Buddhism and Shintoism practiced by the Japanese. Buddhism according to the dictionary is “a religion, originated in India by Buddha and later spreading to China,Burma, Japan, Tibet, and parts of southeast Asia, holding that life is full of suffering caused by desire and that the way to end this suffering is throughenlightenment that enables one to halt the endless sequence of births and deathsto which one is otherwise subject”. Shinto was another major religion within Japan, in which those who practiced it worshiped to both people, animals, animate, and inanimate objects. Artists as seen were inclined to add influences of both of these religions into their art work. One of the important teachings of Buddhism is to achieve harmony between nature and humans, this can be seen in the art work when it shines a light on the animals and their importance to the community and their culture (Bernard). The ideas of Shintoism also are illustrated within different forms of art work in Japanese art, for example clouds are a common motif and it is said “Clouds represent elegance and high status. In Buddhism, clouds signify the ‘Western Paradise’ beyond earth; and in Shintoism, the spirits of the dead”(Victoria and Albert Museum). Therefore, religion has had great influence on Japanese culture and Japanese art through the way different aspects of nature are represented.
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