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Japanese Art

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Posted by Karolina P
Japanese Art

Let’s take a tour through some of the most famous and influential work from the history of Japanese art. We’ll start off in the Edo Period, where pleasure ruled all, and end in a room full of polka dots.

Japanese Art is as varied and diverse as the country itself. Marked by periods of both relative isolation and powerful influence from others, namely from China and the West, Japanese art has always had the ability to absorb and imitate other forms of expressions.

But through this constant exchange of ideas, Japanese art carved out its own unique place in the art world, which continues today. Some of the most exciting contemporary artists working today hail from Japan.

Japanese art covers a wide range of media such as painting, origami, woodblock prints, calligraphy, ceramics, and more recently, manga, anime, and installation.

Ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e, which means “image of the floating world,” is arguably the most recognizable of Japanese art. Flourishing during the luxurious Edo period, Ukiyo-e art is marked by images of beautiful courtesans, kabuki actors, scenes from history and folktales, and, particularly in the later years, travel scenes. The images, most commonly, woodblock prints, are rendered with strong outlines and lush, rich colors.

It probably goes without saying that the most famous Japanese piece of art is Hokusai’s print,The Great Wave of Kanagawa, but let’s say it anyway. Hokusai (1760 - 1849), the self-proclaimed “mad painter,” was considered one of the master Ukiyo-e painter and printmakers.

The Great Wave , reproduced the world over, is a dramatic scene of powerful, blue wave overcoming small fishing boats. It is part of a series titled Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, all which celebrate the landscape of Japan. The powerful movement of the wave and gorgeous blues makes this an unforgettable masterpiece.

Other prints capture stories from myth like Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. A giant skeleton, summoned by a princess to scare a witch, rises out of the blackness, crushing blinds, to menacingly enter a palace. It is spooky and beautiful at the same time.

Its fantastical subject matter and dynamic, flat composition may remind modern viewers of an early version of anime, a storyboard for films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

Utagawa Kuniyosh, Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre,c. 1844

Ceramics

Ceramics are regarded a s a high art form in Japan. With one of the longest traditions of ceramics in the world, with records dating back to 10,000-300 BCE, Japanese ceramic artists are held in the highest regard.

Hand built tea bowls used in Japanese Tea Ceremonies, also known as the Way of Tea, are prized possessions. A vital cultural touchstone, tea ceremonies involve the ceremonial presentation of tea like green matcha.

The most prized bowls are the imperfect ones and these imperfections are proudly displayed during the ceremony. They are commonly raku fired, which allows the piece to cool in the open air after being fired at a high temperature. This mode can be unpredictable and through this unpredictability, unexpected beauty forms.

Tea Bowl

Chōjirō, Tea Bowl, c. 1575 (Source)

Ceramics are so precious in Japan that they have developed an entirely separate art form to repair broken piece. Kintsugi refers to the art of repairing using lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. This delicate cracks are beautiful and add to the narrative and history of the piece.

Japanese ceramics remind us of the beauty in the unexpected, the flawed, the broken, and the untameable.

Japanese ceramics remind

Artist unknown, Clog-shaped tea bowl with design of plum blossoms and geometric patterns, Momoyama period (1573–1615) [Source]

Japanese Contemporary Art

Contemporary Japanese art is so exciting, exuberant, and influential. Each artist draws on the traditions of their homeland and explodes it outward to create something entirely new.

The most far-reaching of contemporary Japanese artists is Takashi Murakami. Born in 1962, he makes large-scale paintings and sculptures as well as bags and other merchandise. A fan of anime and manga from an early age, Murakami coined the term “superflat” to describe his work, which draws on the legacy of flat, 2-dimensional imagery from Japanese art history to manga and anime.

We can easily see the influence of Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre and The Great Wave on one of Murakami’s masterpieces, In The Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow.

In The Land of the Dead

Takashi Murakami, In The Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, 2014 (Source)

In The Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow

Takashi Murakami, In The Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, 2014 (Source)

In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow is a massive piece, measuring over eighty-two feet long and almost ten feet tall. The landscape is awash in an enormous tide of rising water, referencing Japan’s history of natural disasters. A cast of interesting, cartoonish characters gathers at the margin’s to watch the terrifying event. The slightly deranged color palette matches that of Otaku culture, the term for people obsessed with things like anime. The Great Wave also captured the force and unpredictability of nature.

No discussion of Murakami is complete without mentioning his longstanding collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Murakami collaborated with Marc Jacobs to redesign Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer accessory collection. He collaborated with them until 2015. Perhaps his most iconic, and one of the most iconic it-bags of all time, is the Monogram Multicolore Speedy City Bag.

Monogram Multicolore

Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton, Monogram Multicolore Speedy City Bag

These days, when you visit any major museum, especially in the US and Europe, and see a long line of people, you can safely assume they are waiting to enter an installation by Yayoi Kusama.

Throughout her career, she has worked in a variety of media from performance art, to painting, sculpture, and installations. She loves to explore repetition and pattern, all rendered in amazingly bright colors

While her popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, she has been at it since the late 50’s, influencing everyone from Andy Warhol to Claes Oldenburg. Whenever a museum has a Kusama piece on view, their admission numbers skyrocket. The Broad Museum in Los Angeles has shown one of her infinity rooms since they opened and it’s still near impossible to get a reservation.

Infinity Mirrored Room

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (Source)

Her room-sized installations of bright polka dots, mirrors, and mannequins are Instagram darlings. But besides their amazing colors, shapes, and photo-ready lighting, these works capture a type of magic and wonder that is often lost in contemporary art. Stepping into one of her rooms is stepping into a new world entirely. Her infectious attitude, work ethic, and joy is an inspiration to all young and old artists alike! Kusama has said, “I have a flood of ideas. I just follow my vision.” Let’s all follow our own artistic vision and make the world a more beautiful place.

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