Home Art Magazine What is Japanese art? 10 Japanese artists you really should know

Since the beginning of human inhabitation in Japan in 10,000 BC, Japanese art has evolved from ancient pottery and sculpture to painting, woodblock prints, conceptual art, and anime. 

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This article provides an essential guide to the most important Japanese artists and the rich history of Japanese art, from the early influences of Buddhism in visual culture to the celebrated woodcuts of Hokusai to the brightly coloured superflat artworks of contemporary artist Murakami and the drawings of Aya Takano. 

So let's take a step back into the rich history of the Asian nation's visual culture and consider, in simple terms, what is Japanese art?

Japanese art history

Art historians have noted how Japanese artists and visual culture have assimilated, adapted and reacted to outside influences. Since the ancient era, outside influences have shaped Japanese art from Buddhism, which originated in India, via Korean and Chinese culture. 

Buddhism provided Japanese culture with a visual language of art and spiritualism, especially the iconographies of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, which influenced traditional Japanese art and culture from the 9th century onwards.

Unkei 

The Kamakura period in Japanese history began around 1185 and ran up until 1333. The culture of this period is associated with the emergence of the samurai and the warrior caste. The artist and sculptor Unkei specialized in crafting statues of Buddha and was commissioned by high-ranking samurai. 

The assimilation of Chinese culture played a lesser influence from the 9th century as Japan began to develop both secular and religious expressions. This religious and secular form of art flourished until the 15th century.

 

Unkei, Dainichi Nyorai at Enjō-ji, 1212

 

Josetsu 

From 1338 to 1573, Japanese art took on a more aristocratic and elitist character during the Muromachi period. The artist Josetsu emerged with his highly recognizable ink wash style. The naturalized Chinese citizen became known as "the father of Japanese ink painting". 

In his ink work Catching a Catfish with a Gourd, the painter includes inscriptions that refer to the painting as being of the "new style" in the Muromachi period, which was linked to the Chinese depth of field in the background scene.

 

Josetsu, Catching catfish with a gourd (Hyōnen-zu), 1413

 

Kanō Eitoku

The artist Kanō Eitoku led the development of the Azuchi-Momoyama art of the Azuchi–Momoyama period from 1573–1603. His work "Birds and flowers of the four seasons" exemplifies his "monumental style" characterized by bold brushwork. Eitoku work is distinguished by his deployment of a rapid painting technique with substantial foregrounds and motifs. 

The rise of a popular culture characterized the Edo period of Japanese history (1603 to 1867). In this era, woodblock prints (known as ukiyo-e) became the main art form, and colourful printing flourished. While the art of the period thrived, society became highly restrictive. The country was closed to foreigners, and outside cultural influence was prohibited.

However, this was a period when Japanese national culture flourished. With rising literacy, the population began consuming illustrated poetry, essays, literature and popular stories; professional female entertainers (geisha), Kabuki (theater), and bunraku (puppet theater) all played a role in this new culture.

 

Kanō Eitoku, Flowers and Birds of the Four Seasons,  late 16th century.

 

Hokusai

One of the most well-known Edo period artists is the woodblock artist Hokusai, especially his works Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai's work reflects a form of traditional Japanese art and a personal obsession with Mount Fuji.

Hokusai is credited with transforming the ukiyo-e artform by translating the technique most associated with portraiture and producing landscape scenes. Indeed, his prints had a profound impact not just on Japanese art and culture but also on western artists. 

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan ended the Edo era policy of isolation and the nation saw a sudden cultural exchange with the west. By 1873, the government had taken a proactive interest in the art exporting, even appearing at world fairs, including the 1873 Vienna World Fair.

Opening up to the world led to renewed interest in traditional Japanese art and culture. In Europe and North America, this interest in Japanese art and culture became known as Japonisme. How then did Japanese art influence impressionism?

 

Hokusai, Fine Wind, Clear Morning (or Red Fuji), from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830s

 

Japonisme and the Impressionists

Many artists, including Vincent van Gogh, admired the aesthetics of Japanese artists and Japanese visual culture. As reproductions of woodblock prints, decorative arts, ceramics, enamels and metalwork began arriving in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, artists began replicating the techniques and iconography of Japan. Indeed, Van Gogh started to collect ukiyo-e prints easily available in Paris and began painting with these woodcut prints in mind. His Portrait of Père Tanguy features a Japanese-inspired background with colourful prints and illustrations of the Japanese woodblock artist Utagawa Hiroshige. Prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige greatly influenced other impressionists of the period, including Edgar Degas.

 

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1887

 

Hiroshi Nakamura

After Japan's defeat in World War II, artists associated with the Japan Communist Party began experimenting with socialist realism. Social realist artists such as Hiroshi Nakamura created drawings of the period that depicted the suffering of the poor and working-class of the post-war period, especially agricultural workers.   

Nakamura developed a style of "reportage painting", in which he produced political art and represented social issues through his work. Influenced by the murals of Diego Riviera, Nakamura painted scenes of socialist struggle from an anti-imperialist perspective. His work Suganaga No. 4, 1955 criticised the US military presence in Japan in the 1950s. 

 

Hiroshi Nakamura, Sunagawa No.5, oil on plywood, 1955

 

Gutai Group

Around the same period, the avant-garde Gutai Group was founded by the painter Jirō Yoshihara. The radical collective experimented with painting, performance, conceptual and installation artworks Gutai and greatly influenced the conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s. 

The highly influential group is best known for the broad range of experimental artforms combining painting with performance, conceptual, interactive, site-specific, theatrical and installation artworks, which its members explored in unconventional venues such as public parks and on stage.

Shiraga Kazuo's body performance artwork Challenge the Mud, 1955, saw the artist roll in a pile of mud half-naked. The mud was left on display after the performance. The work by Shiraga exemplified the group's interest in the body and violence.

 

Kazuo Shiraga, Challenging Mud, 1955 

 

Yayoi Kusama

In the 1960s, the Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama worked between Japan and the USA. Best known for her painting, performance, and installation artworks, Kusama's work is part of the history of feminism, minimalism, surrealism, Art Brut, pop art, and abstract expressionism. 

Today, Kusama is perhaps most recognised for her brightly coloured polka dots and experimentations with colour. Her immersive artworks include Infinity Room at the Tate Modern in London, which is an example of her experiment with colour and reflections and ideas of space and time. 

 

Yayoi Kusama, The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens, 2017, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia

 

Yoko Ono

The Japanese multimedia artist and peace activist is known as the wife of John Lennon. But Ono is an avant-garde performance artist in her own right. 

In the 1960s, she delivered her performance work Cut Piece in Kyoto. Wearing a suit and holding a pair of scissors, she invited the audience to cut pieces of her clothing off. The work explored issues of gender and Japanese cultural identity. Ono also experimented with Fluxus artists in the 1960s through visual poetry.

 

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece performance, 1964

 

Takashi Murakami

As Japanese society reached the post-modern period, a new movement of "Superflat" art emerged through the work of Takashi Murakami. The artist's painting and sculpture blend commercial arts, fashion and animation. 

Blurring the line between high and low art, Murakami describes the Superflat movement as a flattening out of high and low forms of culture in Japanese society, mixing ideas of traditional visual culture with contemporary "flat" 2-dimensional aesthetic elements of anime and manga. 

Murakami's artworks are large scale, densely coloured and simplified forms. Murakami is concerned with the aesthetic qualities of Japan's historic-artistic tradition alongside this "flattened out" contemporary culture.

 

Takashi Murakami, Tan Tan Bo Puking, 2001

 

Aya Takano

The student of Takashi Murakami, Aya Takano's work brings together elements of Japanese traditional art and modern culture described above. As one of Japan's most exciting contemporary artists, her distinct visual style is influenced by the visual languages of manga, traditional printmaking and science fiction. 

Today, she is best known for her involvement in the Superflat art movement drawn together by Murakami in the 2000s. Her style reflects the visual language of manga comics and artworks such as let's go to the battle transform narratives from the page onto monumental canvasses. 

Her picture of two weapon-wielding girls on their way to battle brings together the artist's concern for Japanese history and the contemporary representation of women.

 

Aya Takano, let’s go, to the battle, 2020, oil on canvas, Aya Takano/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Image courtesy of Perrotin.

 

Cover image: Takashi Murakami, Tan Tan Bo Puking, 2001

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