Japan Arts Between 645 and 784
These two epochs, the second of which takes its name from the capital, are do. undermined by a common great artistic event, by the conquest of external reality, which is the event of decisive importance also for the art of China during the T’ang era. Also in this period we can follow the evolution of the drapery that gradually loses its rigidity and of the modeling of the body that is refined and enriched. The most important monuments of the Hakuhō era (673-686) are found in the temple of Yakushiii near Nara.
According to Vaultedwatches, the Hōryūji encloses a domestic altar, of extreme elegance, adorned on the bottom and on the back with harmonically wavy linear motifs. Alongside bronze, clay and dry lacquer were also in use at this time; especially the latter (kanshitsu) is extraordinarily suitable for expressing the artistic ideals of the time, intent on modeling with organic naturalness and also differentiating the drapery from the bodies in matter. In the faces, the monumental simplicity of the previous period is replaced by an expression of inner recollection and rapture, which, then repeated in a summary and stereotypical way, will become the characteristic note of the Nara era. Some traditional elements of Chinese art take on a particular Japanese character during this period. Thus, for example, there are numerous fictile groups of athletic “keepers of the sky” and “guardians of the gates”, who are more naturalistic in the details of the armor and more individual in the facial expression than any work on the continent. At the same time a new vivacity, often even wild, it invests the previously calm figures. Then begins that exaggeration of heroic attitudes which later reaches the point of caricature and which was the cause of the unfavorable concept of Far Eastern art for a long time, until the monuments of the archaic age were known. Even the masks of the Nara period – preserved in the treasures of the temples, especially in the Shōsōin (see below) – often already hint at the grotesque. They are a product of Japan, as well as the statues that portray famous priests, in whose specimens of the century. VIII naturalism is still held back by a severe plastic form, as if the face, although intended to be a portrait, were idealized according to the canons of statues for worship.
Even the painting of the Nara era is quite well known to us. The murals in the kond ō of the Hōryūji, unfortunately very damaged, must be considered as the most perfect work of T’ang painting. The modeling of the folds of the drapery, arranged according to an ornamental pattern. hint at close relations with Central Asia. Then this way, derived from China, disappears. Inspired by Chinese art are also five illustrated scrolls (ingwaky ō), of Buddhist content, only partially preserved. In them we observe – for the first time in Japan – the diagonal scheme and the landscape almost as backdrops. But only towards the end of this era was a real painting born in Japan. The image of the goddess Kichijōten from the Yakushiji temple (Nara, Museum) clearly shows the ethnic imprint of its creator. The elegance of the lines, the humanity that animates that painting, denounce the Japanese origin, since there are only slight nuances that distinguish the Japanese painting of this period from the contemporary Chinese.
The minor arts of the century VIII are collected in immeasurable wealth and number in the Shōsōin (lit. “Warehouse of righteousness”) of Nara; but there is the doubt that a large part of those treasures was imported from China or even further away. The nucleus of the collection is made up of the objects owned by Emperor Shōmu, who died in 756. An inventory, drawn up in that year, provides us with a precious terminus ante quemfor most items. Later the treasure was enriched with individual votive gifts, especially, towards 950, of the very important ones coming from the nearby Tōdaiji temple. The Shōsōin pottery is undoubtedly Chinese and of a very crude type. On the other hand, the mirrors with inlay in the Ts’ang decorative style are admirable. The fabrics justify the great fame that East Asia enjoyed in ancient times as a center of their production. The furniture and inlaid weapons are the objects that can be attributed with greater certainty to Japan: their style goes well with that of the objects found in the excavations of the foundations of the Tōdaiji, where, among the votive gifts, a bronze sword was found, with a lacquer sheath richly decorated with gold, with tendrils,
In architecture the innovations consisted in the use of building two pagodas instead of just one, of coordinating the conference hall (k ō d ō) with the kond ō, and in arranging the whole set of buildings along the longitudinal axis.
Among the few remaining buildings from this time, the eastern pagoda of Yakushiji near Nara should be remembered. Small models of pagodas show the rich development of the ancient type in the 10th century. VIII. The Ikoma model, for example, represents a five-story pagoda. The capitals of the upper floors have become very complex and twisted shapes. Even a barn from this time, without windows, has been preserved in the architecture of the Shōsōin. In the large architectural complexes of Tōdaiji and Saidaiji – one in Nara, the other in the vicinity – there are parts of the same period, but remodeled and defaced by restorations. Finally, the octagonal hall of the Dream (Yumedono) in the Hōryūji must be mentioned here, which certainly belongs to the Tempyō era (729-748).