A Brief History of Japanese Art: From Prehistoric Pottery to Yayoi Kusama in Half an Hour

The ear­li­est known works of Japan­ese art date from the Jōmon peri­od, which last­ed from 10,500 to 300 BC. In fact, the peri­od’s very name comes from the pat­terns its pot­ters cre­at­ed by press­ing twist­ed cords into clay, result­ing in a pre­de­ces­sor of the “wave pat­terns” that have been much used since. In the Heian peri­od, which began in 794, a new aris­to­crat­ic class arose, and with it a new form of art: Yamato‑e, an ele­gant paint­ing style ded­i­cat­ed to the depic­tion of Japan­ese land­scapes, poet­ry, his­to­ry, and mythol­o­gy, usu­al­ly on fold­ing screens or scrolls (the best known of which illus­trates The Tale of Gen­ji, known as the first nov­el ever writ­ten).

This is the begin­ning of the sto­ry of Japan­ese art as told in the half-hour-long Behind the Mas­ter­piece video above. It con­tin­ues in 1185 with the Kamaku­ra peri­od, whose brew­ing sociopo­lit­i­cal tur­moil inten­si­fied in the sub­se­quent Nan­boku­cho peri­od, which began in 1333. As life in Japan became more chaot­ic, Bud­dhism gained pop­u­lar­i­ty, and along with that Indi­an reli­gion spread a shift in pref­er­ences toward more vital, real­is­tic art, includ­ing cel­e­bra­tions of rig­or­ous samu­rai virtues and depic­tions of Bud­dhas. In this time arose the form of sumi‑e, lit­er­al­ly “ink pic­ture,” whose tran­quil mono­chro­mat­ic min­i­mal­ism stands in the minds of many still today for Japan­ese art itself.

Japan’s long his­to­ry of frac­tious­ness came to an end in 1568, when the feu­dal lord Oda Nobuna­ga made deci­sive moves that would result in the uni­fi­ca­tion of the coun­try. This began the Azuchi-Momoya­ma peri­od, named for the cas­tles occu­pied by Nobuna­ga and his suc­ces­sor Toy­oto­mi Hideyoshi. The cas­tle walls were lav­ish­ly dec­o­rat­ed with large-scale paint­ings that would define the Kanō school. Tra­di­tion­al Japan itself came to an end in the long, and mil­i­tary-gov­erned Edo peri­od, which last­ed from 1615 to 1868. The sta­bil­i­ty and pros­per­i­ty of that era gave rise to the best-known of all clas­si­cal Japan­ese art forms: kabu­ki the­atre, haiku poet­ry, and ukiyo‑e wood­block prints.

With their large mar­ket of mer­chant-class buy­ers, ukiyo‑e artists had to be pro­lif­ic. Many of their works sur­vive still today, the most rec­og­niz­able being those of mas­ters like Uta­maro, Hoku­sai, and Hiroshige. Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Hoku­sai’s series Thir­ty-Six Views of Mount Fuji as well as its famous install­ment The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa. As Japan opened up to the west from the mid­dle of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the var­i­ous styles of ukiyo‑e became prime ingre­di­ents of the Japon­isme trend, which extend­ed the influ­ence of Japan­ese art to the work of major West­ern artists like Degas, Manet, Mon­et, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Mei­ji Restora­tion of 1868 opened the long-iso­lat­ed Japan to world trade, re-estab­lished impe­r­i­al rule, and also, for his­tor­i­cal pur­pos­es, marked the coun­try’s entry into moder­ni­ty. This inspired an explo­sion of new artis­tic tech­niques and move­ments includ­ing Yōga, whose par­tic­i­pants ren­dered Japan­ese sub­ject mat­ter with Euro­pean tech­niques and mate­ri­als. Born ear­ly in the Shōwa era but still active in her nineties, Yay­oi Kusama now stands (and in Paris, at enor­mous scale in stat­ue form) as the most promi­nent Japan­ese artist in the world. The rich psy­che­delia of her work belongs obvi­ous­ly to no sin­gle cul­ture or tra­di­tion — but then again, could an artist of any oth­er coun­try have come up with it?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Down­load 215,000 Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters Span­ning the Tradition’s 350-Year His­to­ry

Down­load Vin­cent van Gogh’s Col­lec­tion of 500 Japan­ese Prints, Which Inspired Him to Cre­ate “the Art of the Future”

Japan­ese Com­put­er Artist Makes “Dig­i­tal Mon­dri­ans” in 1964: When Giant Main­frame Com­put­ers Were First Used to Cre­ate Art

How to Paint Like Yay­oi Kusama, the Avant-Garde Japan­ese Artist

The Entire His­to­ry of Japan in 9 Quirky Min­utes

The His­to­ry of West­ern Art in 23 Min­utes: From the Pre­his­toric to the Con­tem­po­rary

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.