Japan Arts Between 1337 and 1573
It is named after the shōguns Ashikaga. The town was dominated by the great feudal lords who became more and more independent; but despite all the struggles, Kyōto, safe within its walls, lost nothing of its artistic hegemony, and the patronage of the princes, passionate about art, continued to favor its production.
The sculpture was exhausted in the repetition of the patterns handed down. Only in the portrait did he continue to produce masterpieces, as well as in the masks. These masks, whose origin is obscure, were required for n ō, the classical drama (see above: Literature). It is true that the carvers of the Ashikaga era used older types of masks, but they gave their formulas something definitive, the effectiveness of which in the scene continues today. The way in which reality is captured and reduced to an abstract and intense form (for example, a demon, a woman in distress, a beautiful girl, an old man, a hero) is inimitably Japanese.
Painting was the most important art. The tradition of Buddhist religious paintings continues and the production of Tosa scrolls with little originality, although Tosa Mitsunobu can always be considered as one of the most important figures in the history of Japanese art. But the new fact, which had an immense influence on the development of painting in this period, was the enthusiastic adoption of the Chinese black and white technique, in which the Sung academies became famous.
According to Baglib, the first teacher who imitated the Chinese was Jōsetsu, followed by the disciple Shūbun, who is joined by his son Geiami, Nōami, Sōtan and the priest Sesshū, the most eminent of all. Even the names of Jasoku, Sōami son of Geiami, Sesson and Shūgetsu must not be passed over in silence. The importance of Sesshū for Japan is comparable only to that of Rembrandt for Europe. His subjects are landscapes, scenes of religious content, animals and plants, all pervaded by a profound religious sense. Despite the individual variations, in all the painters named we find common stylistic notes which are those of the black and white style. The shapes of the hanging pictures (kakemono) adapt to the niches (tokonoma) within which they must find a place. Landscapes are the subject that best lends itself to giving concrete form to the ideal of the Zenite sect, evident in the deliberate limitation of the means of expression. It goes so far as to represent a tree, a Buddhist saint, a fruit or a bird with a single inkblot. Calligraphy is frequently included in the composition; the empty areas destined to be filled by the spectator’s imagination always occupy a considerable space. This way led to an academy founded by Kanō Masanobu, whose son Monotobu was its major representative. The Kanō school mainly dominated court production; although not insensitive to other influences, he remained essentially faithful to the traditions of black and white.
The use of lacquer reaches its maximum development. His technique, varied and flexible, begins to take a predominant place that will not be without fatal consequences. It manages to represent the different levels, to vary the background and the substances used for the inlay. And it applies preferably to small objects, maintained by masters and by dynasties of artists whose works are mentioned separately.
The use of red lacquer appears in Kyōto in close dependence on Chinese models. In an object of such common use, the teapot, the lacquer conforms admirably to the purpose, in the painted and inlaid ornaments, with a constraint that better reveals the mastery of the artists.
The pottery objects were mainly used for the tea ceremony; and the talented ceramist was no less considered than the talented painter, while he had to condense transcendent concepts into such a small space with his few means of artistic expression. For the tea ceremony (cha – no – yu) (which consists in drinking, in a hut prepared for this purpose and under the direction of a special master of ceremonies, a cup of tea prepared by blending the powder), certain types of containers. The powdered tea is stored in a small urn closed by an ivory lid (chaire). The water is drawn from the larger vessel (mizusashi), while a cup (chawan) is used to stir the tea and drink. Other pieces for the tea set were the censer, the cake plate, the saucers. The glazing, often obtained with different firings, always leaves a small area of clay uncovered at the base of the ceramics. The piece of ceramic is generally detached from the wheel by means of a spiral wire which leaves a mark (itokiri) under the foot ; and this, and the quantity of clay, are the most important characteristics for distinguishing schools and teachers. The renowned Seto pottery (yakimono) is linked to Chinese traditions, the Bizen one uses a land similar to majolica. We also remember the large urns for tea leaves (chatsubo) and porcelain services.
The art of bronze asserts itself in original ways in ritual objects. It made free use of ornamental motifs, shapes the contours with strength and grace. The object’s purpose still determines its shape and decoration: only later does the parsimony in the use of means disappear from this branch of art.
The decoration of the swords is initially entrusted to the engraver alone. It was limited to certain parts of the weapon, the discoid guard of the sword, the hilt of the knife sword (kozuka) and the spit sword (k ō gai), the locks of the transverse pins that serve to hold the hilt together. and the blade (drones), to the upper end cover (kashira) and to the plates on the hilt (menuki). In the most ancient works, the discoid guard of the sword was also decorated with a fretwork to lighten it. In the works of the century. XV, on the other hand, the damask patterns of yellow metal in slight relief predominate, without excluding some fretwork decorations. Among the many masters of this period, Nobuie takes first place. From the Ashikaga era are the first works of the Gotō family much admired later, specialized in decorating the minor pieces of the sword with precious metals on a chiseled black background.
The tendency for refined forms was also manifested in architecture. The convent is transformed into a villa, which includes the garden with wise calculation in the lines of its architectural ensemble. Even the room for the tea ceremony is reduced to greater simplicity, precisely in order not to disturb the overall effect (see above all the graceful building of the Kinkakuji). The capitals seem almost suppressed, the roofs less salient in their scenographic effect. The pagodas, even too ornate on the outside, multiply.