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Traditional Japanese design functions mainly on the four schools of design called Wabi-sabi, Miyabi, Shibui, and Iki. Wabi-sabi is comprised of the sub-principals of Fukinsei, asymmetry, irregularity. Kanso, simplicity. Koko, basic, weathered appearance. Shizen, without pretense, natural. Yugen, subtly profound grace, not obvious. Datsuzoku, unbounded by convention, and Seijaku, tranquility. This school of thought is derived mainly from zen buddhist philosophies regarding life and how it should be lived. Miyabi, which piqued in the Heian period, also centers on buddhist minimalist ideals, and in application visually looks like elegance, refinement, and courtliness due in part to its entwinement with the social class system at the time.
Shibui, which literally is the antithesis of “sweet”, works on three basic concepts or values. It is simple, subtle, unobtrusive beauty. Iki, which started in the merchant class in Edo, is mainly based in what was available to them at the time. Because of this, its main principals are expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality.
Each of these principles is applicable to anything from visual art to personal philosophy, but for this paper they will be studied in their application to visual art, pottery, and architecture.
In the Yamato period, running from around the year 250 to 538, is the earliest relevant period of the visual arts in Japan. By this school of classification it can be broken down into the Kofun and Asuka periods within the overarching timeline, but those two subcategories will be discussed in detail later on. For now, looking at the art over the longer timeline, each aforementioned school of aesthetic will be explored, although not all were formally named at this time.
Wabi-sabi is both one of the oldest and most prolific stylistic themes in Japanese arts. Early arts show it in a different way than modern Japanese arts and architecture, their subject matter is cleaner and focused on nature, mythology, and people. It is typical of this style to have asymmetrical composition, defined, but natural lines, and lots of uncolored space. This is visible as well in pottery, which at this point was still being designed mainly for utilitarian purposes. Although this does change a little over time, the core concepts are still represented. While miyabi is not as well known as wabi-sabi, it is still evidenced by the cohesive style of the surviving art of the Yamato period. It can also be seen in the figures represented by the art of this period. The majority of them appear in the upper class based on dress. In the given time period, there is little shibui influence. It is present mostly in backdrops of nature and the use of subtle color for shading. Finally, the influence of iki aesthetics is present in that the art isn’t “clean” persay, so much as finished by the standards of the style, and while people represented in it are often of high social standing, the work is not overdone or opulent. These principles are also present in architecture of the period, although much of it does not still stand. Buildings were made in cohesion with nature, using semi geometric designs that were dictated by the available resources and woods.
In the Kofun period, 250 to 538, the design principles from the last era in Japanese history continued to evolve, Wabi-sabi remained one of the most prevalent stylistic schools in art, and throughout this period there is continuation of asymmetric composition along with simple and unfired sculpture made from natural material. Pottery was still mainly utilitarian, but it is not uncommon to start to see more aesthetically oriented designs at this time. Miyabi was present in similar ways, primarily in the images representing people. Figures drawn in much more elegant way, using stronger, longer brush strokes and patterns, and similar principles were used in sculpture used to tribute upper class individuals. In this era, Shibui influences show in comparable ways, especially in presentation of people and human figures which were simple, but with more complex garment design which included a subtle use of color and pattern with brighter colors than in the past. This also plays into the use of Iki principals, such as the use of patterns only within clothing, and loose definition of figures and patterns. These basic principles remain preset in architecture as well, and although not much changes between this period and the last, it is notable that temples and shrines became more prevalent in this period, and continued to fit the aforementioned aesthetics and harmony with nature.
In the Asuka 538 to 710 period, not much changed in visual arts and sculpture, but subtle changes in subject and style do separate the two time periods. Wabi-sabi continued to be a major design influence, as it will throughout history, however because of the introduction of metals. This brought on an era of sculpture for purposes other than utilitarian function. Use of polished metals became common, especially in smooth and finished but weather friendly sculptures. This was important to the development of pottery, because although metal was not used often for it’s main material, metals were used to repair broken pots, and in various methods of treating pottery so that it could be used longer. In visual arts, larger blocks of simple colors became common, and colors within the backgrounds of paintings replaced the larger swatches of empty space previously common. Similarly, Miyabi was impacted by the introduction of metal work to common arts in Japan. It is visible in simple images, and a movement away from patterns. One thing unique to this period, is the use of gold paint and pigment, which is present later on in a lesser quantity but not prior to this period and the introduction of precious metals. These gold pigments were often used in large portions of the works, highlighting details and patterns within the work. This plays into shibui aesthetics and its inclusion of background detail in environments besides the outdoors, and the use of more color used harmoniously. The main way Iki is present in images of this period is in their subject matter. This focus shifted to portrayal of scenes outside royal courts and myths, and color images of common day to day stuff.
Nara, 710 to 784, is the last era where all design elements are consistently present, after this the design schools present narrow slightly to more clearly reflect the schools of design commonly known today. Wabi-sabi remained the primary design aesthetic, both in architecture and visual arts, with a focus on nature and man coexisting in art and in life. As has been common in the past, large works with more blank spaces were common, especially in works portraying nature. Often skies were left blank and the natural colors of whatever the backing materials were showed through. These stylistic choices play into Miyabi, Shibui, and Iki. Architecture and pottery did not make any significant revolutions in this time period, and continued to primarily be a way of representing every day symbiosis with nature.
Heian period, 794 to 1185, showed similar themes to Nara, with a continuation of Wabi-Sabi especially in art regarding nature and depictions of Mount Fuji. Despite this similarity, the Heian period shows evolution in its art and in the expression of Miyabi by its more intricate details in art depicting nature, and the inclusion of more detailed human scenes such as images of people at market over a backdrop of a lake. There are similar themes present in the beginning of porcelain that appeared in this period, as prior to this visual arts such as painting, and pottery had not been combined in any major ways. With the early introduction of painted porcelain, there was not any extreme detail, but more than was present in the traditional unpainted pottery. In addition to this, there was a return to the depiction of opulence that dissipated in past periods, images such as royalty or royal courts became common again.
The final era before what is typically considered “modern history”, is Kamakura, which ran from 1185 to 1333. In this time, there was a significant amount of political strife, which lead to wars, and thus art depicting war. Although traditional interpretations of elements of art did not change, the action laid over the landscapes did. As an effect of this, there was a greater use of contrasting colors, mainly because the depiction of man made violence required a lot more red than was present in only pictures of nature. This era is one of the last eras in which images were typically much more aesthetically representative than literally representative. As a result art after this period looks a little more like art from the rest of the world around that time. This period is also one of the last in which architecture was almost exclusively “Japanese” after Edo, due to WWII and natural disasters, Japan rebuilt its infrastructure from the ground up, resulting in unique and modernized buildings.
Edo, 1603 to 1868, is notable not only in arts but in pottery. This is the era in which Japan’s porcelain became well known across the globe, mostly due to global trade being well established. It is not uncommon for these works to mimic visual arts very closely due to the intricate paintings and decorations typical of the style. Both in porcelain and in traditional arts, depictions of Mount Fuji and nature in general were common, as well as royalty, myths, and performers. One theme common only in the visual arts was the depiction of foods, which had been uncommon prior to the Edo period, and remained unseen in most media. There was some small amount of evolution in architecture in this period due to natural disaster destruction, but much of that was lost before WWII in the Kanto earthquake, which destroyed much of the structure on the main island. Structures had survived comparable disasters before this due to their traditional structure, built to work with rather than against the environment. However, the traditional methods of building with natural materials and no metal fixtures, and often no glass windows, were abandoned for westernized materials and practices in the Edo period, as foreign influence became more evident and trade relations strengthened.
Before WWII, visual arts and pottery had evolved slowly and mostly in isolation, and through the war almost no artistic progress was made due to extreme economic disparity, however architecture made leaps and bounds due to foreign influence from germany, which brought much more western architecture to Japan. It is common to see in photos buildings that look like the high rises and skyscrapers of the time, with almost no distinguishing features from american or german architecture. After the Kanto earthquake, buildings had been rebuilt in a similar manner, but and only shrines or temples were typically built in a traditional fashion. After the bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as ongoing firebombing campaigns, much of Japan was left structurally devastated. For a long while after the war as well, there was not enough money to rebuild effectively.
Once Japan’s post war economy had healed enough to begin to really rebuild, Buildings were created with a synthesis of old and new techniques, creating whole cities that had been planned and built in one fell swoop, which resulted in previously unheard of infrastructure and coexistence with natural resources. Buildings also grow to incorporate traditional Japanese design aesthetics, combined with the western influence of American occupation. Today, Japan has remaining traditional architecture across the country, but in cities, there is the unique trend of designing buildings to reflect their purpose or product to an extent not seen anywhere else. Art and pottery, when not traditional, is frequently comparable to western arts, except in the case of anime. Anime and manga are a style based in traditional art, that received a very specific and minimal influences from western arts.
Japanese art history is a long and incredibly unique story, especially when architecture and pottery are included. It is not hard to see how Japan has become an influential force on art and design in the modern world, and it is easy to understand why the unique designs developed the way they did when political and geographic turmoil are considered. It is likely Japan will remain highly influential to modern art and design for many years to come.
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