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Arts and Culture, Art and Architecture

Horyuji temple, Ise Shrine, rush matting, Todaiji, native styles

Japan’s oldest indigenous art is handmade clay pottery, called Jomon, or cord pattern, pottery. Produced beginning about 10,000 bc, it marked the beginning of a rich ceramic-making tradition that has continued to the present day. During the Kofun period, sculptors fashioned terra cotta figurines called haniwa that depicted a variety of people (including armor-clad warriors and shamans), animals, buildings, and boats. The figurines were placed on the tombs of Japan’s rulers.

When Buddhism arrived in Japan, its architecture and art profoundly influenced native styles. Horyuji temple, built near Nara in the early 7th century, has the world’s oldest wooden buildings, as well as an impressive collection of Buddhist paintings and statues. During the Nara period, many new temples were erected in and around the city. The most famous temple is Todaiji, where an approximately 16-m (53-ft) Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue is housed in the world’s largest wooden building. Possibly inspired by the temples of Buddhism, a distinct style of Shinto architecture began to develop. Drawing on native traditions such as raised floors and thatched roofs with deep eaves, Shinto produced artistically fine structures such as the Ise Shrine and the Izumo Shrine.

After the emperor’s court moved to Heian-kyo in 794, the construction of Buddhist temples continued. Many were now built in remote areas, where they were designed to blend harmoniously with their natural settings. The esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism arrived from China creating a demand among Heian courtiers for the visual and plastic arts of Shingon. These included mandalas (diagrams of the spiritual universe used for meditation) and paintings and statues of fantastic beings, sometimes fierce with extra limbs or heads. Beautifully appointed residences (called shinden residences) also began to appear at this time. These rambling structures opened onto raked-sand gardens, which featured ponds fed by streams that often flowed under the residences’ raised floors. Although no examples of shinden residences exist today, narrative picture scrolls from the late Heian period depict these residences of the courtier elite. These scrolls, known as emakimono, represent one of the first forms of indigenous, secular painting in Japan. One of the most impressive examples of emakimono is an illustrated version of the 11th century prose epic, the Tale of Genji.

During the early Kamakura period, Nara-era traditions of realistic sculpture inspired a sculptural revival that produced dynamic, individualized figures. But probably the finest products of Kamakura art were narrative picture scrolls. Indeed, with the notable exception of the earlier Tale of Genji scroll, most of the finest surviving emakimono date from the Kamakura period. These include the Ippen scroll, which depicts the journeys of Ippen, an evangelist of Pure Land Buddhism. The scroll portrays landscape scenes, towns, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines throughout Japan.

Architecturally, the Muromachi period is best remembered for the construction of Zen temples. Notable examples are the so-called “Five Mountains” temples of Kyoto, which were situated mainly around the outskirts of the city to take advantage of the mountain scenery that borders Kyoto on three sides. These temples became the settings for most of the best dry landscape gardens (waterless gardens of sand, stone, and shrubs) constructed in Muromachi times. Two of Japan’s most famous buildings, the Golden and Silver pavilions, are on Zen temple grounds. The creation of the tea ceremony accompanied the development in the 15th century of the shoin style of room construction, featuring rush matting (tatami) for floors, sliding doors, and built-in alcoves and asymmetrical shelves. In painting, the Muromachi period is best known for a monochrome ink style that originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The landscape paintings of masters such as Shubun and Sesshu exemplify the adaptation of the style in Japan.

Many schools of painting flourished during the Tokugawa period, including one that used Western techniques such as shading and foreshortening to produce the illusion of space and depth. The most popular by far, however, was genre art, or art depicting people at work and play. From mid-Tokugawa times, the most popular medium for genre art was the wood-block print. Artists often used the wood-block print technique to create ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world” (referring to the pleasure quarters of Japan’s great cities). Among the favorite subjects of ukiyo-e artists were courtesans and kabuki actors. The artist Utamaro is particularly known for his tall, willowy courtesans, while Sharaku famously captured the spirit and emotions of kabuki actors. In the late Tokugawa period, genre art was dominated by two artists, Hokusai and Hiroshige. Hokusai became famous throughout the world for The Wave (1831), a view of Mount Fuji through a huge, curling wave. Hiroshige created the print series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (1833), which is considered a masterpiece and is well known outside Japan.

One of the greatest architectural works of the Tokugawa period was the Katsura Detached Palace, built in the 17th century. Its clean, geometric lines had a powerful influence on post-World War II residential architecture in many foreign countries. By contrast, the mausoleum of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu at Nikko, built during the same period, is extraordinary for its elaborate decoration.

Among Japan’s best-known modern architects is Tange Kenzo. His buildings won international fame and include the Hall Dedicated to Peace at Hiroshima and the main Sports Arena for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Japanese Art and Architecture.

Article key phrases:

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