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VERSO JOURNAL

Transient things

    19 · 09 · 2019

ON THE NATURAL WORLD IN JAPANESE ART

“DEPICTIONS OF TIME’S PASSING SERVED AS REMINDERS OF THE MELANCHOLIC BEAUTY OF THE EPHEMERAL WORLD.”

Nature is central to the Japanese way of life. Its importance is especially evident in the country’s artistic tradition. Influenced by Chinese art and ideals of Zen Buddhism, a distinctly Japanese art came into its own during the first millennium. With the use of techniques like silkscreens and woodblock prints, Japanese artisans depicted silent landscapes, fantastic birds and humble flower petals with great skill and mastery. In this issue of Verso Journal, we take a closer look at one of our favorite obsessions: nature in Japanese pre-modern art.

SPIRITED NATURE

Refined views of flowers, birds, trees, waves and mountains all figure prominently in Japanese art. For anyone intimately acquainted with the country, there is nothing strange with that. The physical environment has had a unique place in Japanese culture for many centuries. 

To put the Japanese relationship to nature in a sharper perspective, a comparison with the Western conception of nature might be helpful. For people in the western part of the world, a landscape can be wild, peaceful and beautiful, but we seldom ascribe sacred qualities to it. In the Japanese tradition, on the contrary, nature is spirited and alive with deities. This animistic view underpins much of Japan’s artistic representation of nature. Nature is not a secular motif in Japanese art. Consequently, a natural scene in a 10th-century Japanese painting is not merely a depiction of a landscape. It is a portrait of a world of divine beings.

The sacralization of nature goes back to the foundation of Japanese aesthetics: Shinto. An animistic form of worship that emphasizes the wholeness of nature and celebrates the landscape, Shinto was the dominant faith in Japan before the introduction of Buddhism from China in the 6th century. For the Shinto faith divine beings, known as the kami, lived in rivers, mountains, trees and plants.

THE POETRY OF SEASONAL CHANGE

A core feature of Shinto is seasonality - the reverence for the continually shifting seasons and the landscape’s perpetual transformation. Applying the beliefs of Shinto artistically during the Heian period (794-1185), artists and poets began to direct their efforts towards capturing the shifting seasons and the passing of time. 

Working with measured and deliberate brushstrokes, artists crafted highly stylized and elevated versions of nature. A distinctly Japanese pictorial convention worth mentioning was the indication of the shifting seasons in the same painting. A blossoming tree suggesting spring and a flock of geese representing autumn are not unusual to see side by side.

Writers, in turn, created works that praised the transience of natural things. A famous case in point is noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu’s ”The Tale of Genji” from the 11th century. ”The tale of Genji” speaks lyrically about seasonal change and pleasures of nature like the golden autumn leaves, the full August moon and wind heard through pine trees. In that sense, it is an example of ”mono no aware”, which means ”an empathy toward things”.

Ultimately, depictions of time’s passing served as reminders of the melancholic beauty of the ephemeral world.

A JAPANESE SPECIALITY: THE ART OF SUGGESTION

From the 13th century and on Japanese art became even more stylized. Under the influence of Zen Buddhism, continentally inspired motifs like flowers and birds were introduced. New techniques and formats began to enrich Japanese art, reflecting a new age of austerity, discipline and self-sufficiency. The aesthetic ideal was suggestion - to hint at nature through intuitive strokes rather than illustrate it. An important concept in Japanese aesthetics in that sense was yūgen. 

Yūgen has perhaps not earned as much attention in the West as other Japanese aesthetic concepts like wabi (transient beauty) and sabi (the grace of natural aging). Originally meaning ”dim”, ”deep” and ”mysterious”, yūgen refer to the profundity of things. It implies an experience that cannot be put into words. Therefore the philosophy of yūgen favors the allusive over the explicit and complete. It is expressed through, for instance, a view of a mist-shrouded mountain painted with suggestively refined brushstrokes.

MOUNT FUJI: A SOURCE OF IMMORTALITY

Some natural elements are more frequent than others in Japanese representations of the landscape. Anyone looking at the history of Japanese art will probably soon be aware of the prominent role played by the slumbering volcano Mount Fuji. The reason for Mount Fuji’s dominant position in Japanese art is quite easy to understand from an aesthetical perspective. With its almost perfectly conical silhouette and snowcapped peak, the mountain is visually appealing like few other natural wonders. However, Mount Fuji’s importance depends on more than its pleasing look. 

Because, for centuries Mount Fuji has been seen as a source of immortality. Scholars trace this immortality status to the “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, a folk tale from the 10th century in which a goddess deposits the elixir of life on the top of Mount Fuji. This seems to have solidified Mount Fuji’s privileged status as an artistic theme.

One artist particularly intrigued by Mount Fuji was the 18th-century artist Katsushika Hokusai. Immortality and aesthetics were no doubt at the heart of Hokusai’s obsession when he made “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji“. This work consists of a series of landscape prints in the detailed, realistic and precise style of ukiyo-e. 

Hokusai’s most famous painting is not associated with Mount Fuji, however, but with a wave. The work is named “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. Made from a wood block in striking Prussian blue pigment and published between 1829 and 1833, the work depicts a giant wave about to break over three boats. The highly stylized rogue wave is the first thing that meets the viewer’s eyes. But if we look a bit closer, we see that Mount Fuji resides majestically in the background. As a matter of fact, this painting is also about Mount Fuji and belongs to the suite “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji“.

THE MODERN AGE: THE WEST DISCOVERS JAPANESE ART

In the mid-19th century, Japan opened its borders. The country’s art was now available for the world to see. Western artists like Vincent van Gogh became obsessed with Japanese prints revealing a fantastic natural world. Nature did not cease to be a privileged element in Japanese art after the mid-19th century. But the opening of Japan’s borders of course also led to an influx of Western aesthetical ideas. These new influences changed the outlook of Japanese art and took Japan into the modern age.

What in the end makes Japanese portrayals of the natural world from the pre-modern age so intriguing is the many layers of the artworks. Hence, when we think we know what the painting is telling, we can rest assured that there is always more to it than meets our eye.

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