Japan Arts Between 1573 and 1868

By | January 22, 2022

After violent struggles, a new lineage of shōgun prevailed, whose founders resided in the new city of Yedo, the future Tōkyō. The state, perfectly organized. it is closed to any European influence, granting permission to trade with whites only in a few points of the empire, carefully isolated from the inside. The most beautiful works of sculpture in this period are the masks. One of the most famous families of carvers was that of the Demes, whose brand was often counterfeited.

For the first time, minute sculptures of profane subjects and porcelain knick-knacks meet. Netsuke, wooden or ivory buttons designed to hold the ribbon to which the lacquer cans for tobacco or other common objects were hung (inr ō) are in vogue (and were then highly sought after by European collectors). In the century XIX the production of these tiny masterpieces became enormous. The wonderful ability of the Japanese to grasp the humorous side is manifested in the small figures, in which the refinement of the technique joins that of the taste.

Painting, from the beginning of this era, fulfilled new tasks with great success. Sliding doors, multi-paneled screens, fixed umbrellas, are embellished with luxurious decorations, suitable for the sumptuous interiors of ceremonial palaces and convents: and the gold background is back in use. The first representatives of the new decorative style are the Kanō masters.

According to Ask4beauty, the sumptuous furnishings of castles and temples of the 16th and 17th centuries are associated with the names of Eitoku, Sanraku and Sansetsu, all members of the Kanō school. The problem of the relationship between the surface and the various levels of the background is solved with unsurpassed mastery: the asymmetrical distribution of a few elements sets the imagination in motion; the right balance between the severe stylistic tradition and the search for truth and life place these masterpieces in the highest places of Japanese art. Kanō Tan-yū brought these qualities to perfection. But already in his works, and even more in those of his school, the decorative elements, used with superficiality of purpose, take over the vigorously constructed composition. The masters of the Kanō family also painted in black and white; technique in which they had become famous and which had by no means lost popularity under the Tokugawa. Among their independent followers are Tōhaku, Soga Chokuan and Shōkwadō. The old school of Tosa joined in part with the Kanō school, in part it created a new style, also frankly decorative and represented by artists such as Kōetsu, Sōtatsu, Kōrin and Kenzan. Even the rapid sketches of the great Kōriti are rounded in outline, subdivided on the surface, lightened by colors; its colorful flowers, carefully drawn, are similar to the decorative methods of the minor arts. On the other hand, in the works of the four major masters of the Kōrin school (also known as Kōetsu), everything remains moderate and aristocratic; even those masters did not disdain to paint lacquer and porcelain. Only towards the beginning of the century. XIX we arrive at a clear mannerism. One of the many painters not entirely free from European influences can be cited Jakuchū. His varied but stylized brushwork is typical of this late era, characterized by great technical skill and little imagination. The two tonsured monks who advance with such an energetic step in the middle of the passage just mentioned, intent, far from men, at the study of their religious text, no longer personify the old Zenite spirit: they are strange, slightly ridiculous beings. It is impossible to enumerate all the mannerist schools. That of Ōkyo is already making use of the perspective and modeling learned from Europe.

Finally, the subjects become completely profane especially in engraving but also in painting. Matabei initiates an art in Yedo, which later with Motonobu definitively moves away from the old subjects. A new social class, the bourgeoisie, is also affirming itself in the artistic field. In bright colors, but harmonized with a lot of taste, scenes taken from legend, history and everyday life are represented – often with a very raw realism. Even in this apparently new art, but in reality based on fixed formulas, the legacy of the great masters of the past, especially the Tosa, continues to live.

The names and the development of the last great Japanese school, the Ukiyo-e (lit. “painting of life”) are linked to the art of wood engraving.

This ancient art, originally used only for religious purposes as an easy means to reproduce divine images, now becomes a tool for propaganda, education and economic embellishment of the home. Preferably represents wrestlers, actors and geishas. The Kwaigetsudō school, also important in the field of painting, still prefers hand-painted watercolor sheets. Harunobu appears to have been the first to print multi-colored illustrations of gallant scenes that take place almost exclusively in teahouses. Kiyonaga manages to preserve a certain breadth of lines and composition; Shunshō and Shunkō prefer scenes from the theater; Utamaro and his school create new formulas for the portraits of beautiful courtesans. The powerful portraits of actors, by the hand of Sharaku, once again free the art of inert mannerism engraving with a strongly caricatured accentuation of the physiognomic peculiarities. This artist, master in animating the surface with wise linear compositions, exercised a great influence on Europe during the Japanese rowing period, alongside that of Utamaro. Far inferior are the recordings of his successors, the Toyokuni and the Kuniyoshi, skilled in theatrical commercials. With Hokusai, a multiple artist, and Hiroshige, the brilliant landscape painter, Japanese colored woodcut ends its brief but brilliant development in the 19th century.

In lacquer, masterpieces were produced, around 1600, still inspired by decorative painting. Then the lacquers of the Tokugawa era stand out for their elegance. Only the works of Kōetsu’s followers are tied to severe stylistic canons, even though these are not determined by the technical possibilities of the material; the rest is a luxury product, of great color richness and meticulous elegance, of a refined technique rather than an expression of an artistic impulse. The inr ō (kind of little cases that were worn on the belt and which were composed of various subdivisions) have decorations that are often too artificial.

For ceramics, the tea ceremony continued to have great importance, which changed its characters, and from almost religious contemplation became a game of formality. This did not diminish the skill of the potters. An overwhelming number of schools continue to be inspired, in its production, by the stylistic principles of the Ashikaga age. The new impetus that art received from amateurs like Rikyū and Enshū – especially in hand-made pottery called raku – yaki -it has remained effective up to us. Unanimous admiration also aroused the works of Korean potters, often even violently torn from their homeland. Important porcelain manufactories developed, not entirely free from Chinese influence. Nabeshima and Kutani as well as Kyōto are the production centers for the domestic market, following the direction given by Ninsei, a strong artist personality who mainly introduced the use of fused colors on a white background. On the other hand, Arita and Satsuma work for foreign markets, which conform to European taste.

The decoration of the swords became more and more rich as they, losing their character of combat weapon, became an essential element of the noble dress. The schools of Higo eventually come to compose the sword guard with interweaving of thin metal wires. Other schools use inlays of fantastic luxury, and manage to obtain pictorial effects as if by magic in a very small space, but they go beyond – for example in the abuse of enamels – the limits marked by the original destination of the objects.

Above all, the technical and ornamental richness of Japanese textile art was maintained in theatrical costumes. In this, the European influence is often observed (for example in the motif of the two-headed eagle, probably imported from the Portuguese). But even then the subtle colors and temperate use of gold and silver still belong to the Japanese artistic heritage. In the numerous samples of fabrics that have come down to us it is possible to study, as in a great encyclopedia, the immense imagination of that art, great even in these little things.

In architecture, alongside the palaces, fortified castles acquire importance, not without details derived from European architecture. The castles of Osaka and Nagoya are among the best known. In the temples old forms are still repeated, often weakened or overloaded and sought after. And finally, architecture follows sculpture too much. Typical examples of this degenerate art are many commemorative buildings, especially the shōgun tombs in Nikkō, portals like that of Nishi Hongwanji in Kyōto. But what is lost in grandeur in such constructions is compensated for by the elegance of the details and the perfect mastery of technical problems. Europe, for a long time, has not known, admired and imitated Japanese art except this decadent aspect.

(1868 to present). – While, through a revolution, the crown managed to regain absolute power, and used it to lead Japan to a political and economic position never seen before, the speed with which so much transformation was carried out from a feudal state to a great world power it was not without the detriment of traditions, which until then had lasted uninterruptedly. Only towards the beginning of the century. XX manifested a conscious return to the art of the fathers, after the Western infatuation.

In sculpture a rebirth was no longer possible. Painting, on the other hand, tries, and successfully, to re-tie itself to the past, in contrast with the too servile imitation of the West. Today, in Japan, traditionalists predominate, as we could see a few years ago in the two exhibitions in Rome and Berlin.

The minor arts have managed, at least partially, to remain immune to mechanical uniformity. Lacquer artists always continue to work with the technical accuracy of the masters of the past; the potters keep the tradition of their predecessors and their factories; only the swordsmen saw their art condemned to death by the prohibition of carrying weapons. But even where art also maintains ancient traditions, something artificial, intentional, that cannot disguise itself emerges from all the works.

Japan Arts Between 1573 and 1868