The “Kamakura” period (1185–1333) saw the hegemony of the new military class of the samurai. They were determined protectors of the Zen sect, one of the branches of Buddhism brought from China in 1191 by the monk Eisai. With Zen the Chinese culture of the Song dynasty infiltrated Japan. The samurai rebuilt the temples of Nara destroyed during their civil wars: Tōdai-ji was rebuilt in 1195 and Kōfuku-ji in 1189. If at first Zen was adopted only by aristocrats, it soon reached all social classes. For the arts this meant the rebirth of easily understood forms shown in the productions of the great masters of sculpture Unkei and Kaikei. Their terrifying guardians, carved around 1203 for the Tōdai-ji monastery, represent a good example of the sensationalism that characterized this artistic period. The artists then lost the imperial protection of previous centuries and as a consequence they grouped into workshops to perform a quantitatively important and very popular work but at the cost of losing its finer aesthetic qualities. Another artistic treasure from the Kamakura period is the Daibutsu of Kamakura, also known as the Daibutsu of the Kōtoku-in temple, a renowned monumental hollowed bronze statue of Amida Buddha considered one of the most famous icons of Japan and a National Treasure. According to temple records, the statue dates from around 1252 and was probably cast by either Ōno Gorōemon or Tanji Hisatomo, the leading casters of the time. The statue was originally gilded as shown by the remaining traces of gold leaf near its ears. It is approximately 13.35 mt (43.8 ft) tall including its base and weighs approximately 93 ton.
The “Muromachi” period (1338-1573) represented the splendor of the culture of the samurai who, militarily weakened by their internal struggles and avid for spiritual refinement, turned its eyes to Kyoto. The reigning clan of the Ashikaga continued imposing the Zen philosophy that characterized this time, undoubtedly one of the most interesting in the history of Japan. In architecture prevailed structural order and simplicity with the appearance of modulated buildings, the ostentation of bare materials and the rejection of superfluous ornaments, all these characteristics that will later impress and influence contemporary Western architects. These architectural forms were represented in the temples, rebuilt devoutly from generation to generation, of Daitoku-ji (1334), Tenryū-ji (1340), Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion (1397), Ryōan-ji (1450) and the Ginkaku-ji or Silver Pavilion (1490).
In painting the national ideal had as model figure the works by the monk Sesshū Tōyō, from the Zen sect, creator of Sumi-e, a style of black monochrome painting that the samurai Kanō Masanobu and Kanō Motonobu (father and son) enriched by providing non-religious elements and that in turn gave rise to the Kanō school. If the Kanō school continued to be inspired by typical Chinese landscapes, another school, the school of Tosa, focused its attention on themes genuine to Japanese literature and history. But not only painting and architecture contributed to the idea of a national art, other multiple cultural activities did it so: pottery, tea ceremony, gardens, poetry, music… and the nō (literally, “skill” or “talent”), a form of theater that evokes the metaphysical world of Zen by using powerful dramatic resources, including the use of masks that were in themselves true sculptures.
The “Azuchi-Momoyama” period (1573-1603) could be summed up in its tremendous castles as a symbol of power and authority. The first castle was that of Azuchi-jo (1576), in the immediate vicinity of Kyoto, decorated by Kanō Eitoku and erected by order of the fearsome Oda Nobunaga who managed to end the military power of the Buddhist monks and to consummate the divorce between political and religious powers. None of the religious buildings of earlier times could compete, neither in scale nor in lavish decoration, with those imposing multi-story castles. Of them we highlight that of Nijō (1602) in Kyoto, the only great samurai residence that today still exists, and that of Osaka (1583), built by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and admirably described by Gaspar Coelho (a Portuguese Jesuit missionary) who was welcomed as its guest. At this time the first European, Spanish and Portuguese foreigners arrived in Japan, and the country opened up to new ideas that extended from end to end of the country decentralizing its powers. A new social structure was then drawn in which the rising commercial bourgeoisie imposed economically over the samurai. Castles went from being a defense machine to become a propaganda machine, but in short they turned to be uncomfortable for the life of opulent people. The artists were responsible for turning them into sumptuous and refined homes, in particular the members of the Kanō school descendants of Kanō Masanobu who, as we have seen, had worked for the Ashikaga clan, and whose most illustrious example was the castle of Kanō Eitoku, the “one with the golden backgrounds”.
This was the time of the object, of the Maki-e (lacquer work), of the handicrafts or mingei, of gold and silver that shined lasciviously everywhere. In contrast, Sen-no-Rikyū (around 1522-1591) proposed a new tea ceremony that rejected the automatic ritual gestures in favor of a more “natural simplicity”. He was the architect of the new utensils employed in this ceremony, whose extraordinary simplicity, purity of lines and coarseness will later exert great influence in Western modern industrial design. In architecture, to the ornate exuberance of the castles, the new trend boosted the construction of delicate palaces located between idyllic and studied landscapes, buildings with a marked regularity and strong simplicity. The greatest exponent was undoubtedly the Katsura palace, in the immediate vicinity of Kyoto, so admired by 20th-century architects.
The characteristics of the “Edo” or “Tokugawa” period (1600-1868), the last feudal Japanese military government, didn’t differ much from the previous “Azuchi-Momoyama” period. For example, the palace of Katsura, the work of two generations that denoted an incredible stylistic unity, wasn’t finished until 1645. The development of the mingei continued as well as the evolution of ceramics one of the most sought-after arts in Japan. Japan of the time of the Tokugawa was divided into 200 clans, each with a chief and each chief with his castle. The growing preponderance of merchants and industrialists demanded, however, a new style of art more in accordance with their lifestyles. Thus, together with the schools of Kanō and Tosa in the 17th century, arose the Ukiyo-e or art of the woodblock prints with the artist Suzuki Harunobu. During this period, also made its appearance the kabuki, a more realistic and fun theater form than the nō, an art that would eventually become known as the Japanese national theater.
In the “Meiji” period (1868-1912) contacts with the West marked the evolution of Japanese art towards European art. In 1884, Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura Kakusō organized the first exhibition of traditional Japanese art followed later by other international exhibitions: the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), which had such strong influence on the work of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Paris World’s Fair (1900), so decisive for the development of post-impressionist painting as reflected in the works of Toulouse Lautrec or Paul Gauguin.
Gofun: A white pigment made from the shells of oysters, clams, scallops, etc. used in Japanese paintings. Its main component is calcium carbonate and is characterized by the fine particles which produce a smooth matte texture. Gofun itself has no adhesive properties and is mixed with glue solution to fix it to the support medium.
Kabuki: A classical Japanese dance-drama. Kabuki theater is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers.
Kannon: The Japanese denomination for Guanyin or the bodhisattva known as Avalokiteśvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion.
Kare-sansui: (Lit.: “dry landscape”). A refined type of Japanese Zen temple garden design generally featuring distinctive larger rock formations arranged amidst a sweep of smooth pebbles (small, carefully selected polished river rocks) raked into linear patterns with the aim of facilitate meditation.
Maki-e: (Lit.: “sprinkled picture”). A Japanese technique of lacquer sprinkled with gold or silver powder as a decoration using a makizutsu or a kebo brush. The technique was developed mainly in the Heian period (794–1185) and blossomed in the Edo period (1603–1868). Maki-e objects were initially designed as household items for court nobles; they soon gained more popularity and were adopted by royal families and military leaders as a symbol of power. To create different colours and textures, maki-e artists use a variety of metal powders including gold, silver, copper, brass, lead, aluminum, platinum, and pewter, as well as their alloys. Bamboo tubes and soft brushes of various sizes are used for laying powders and drawing fine lines.
Mingei: (Lit.: “folk arts” or “arts of the people”). Refers to the Japanese folk art movement.
Nio: Also known as Kongōrikishi are two wrathful and muscular guardians of the Buddha standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples in East Asian Buddhism in the form of frightening wrestler-like statues. They are protector and defender manifestations of the bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, the oldest and most powerful of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon.
Nō: (From the Sino-Japanese word for “skill” or “talent”). A major form of classical Japanese dance-drama that has been performed since the 14th century. It is the oldest major theater art that is still regularly performed today. Nō is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. Noh integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance, requiring highly trained actors and musicians. Emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized conventional gestures while the iconic masks represent the roles such as ghosts, women, children, and the elderly.
Samurai: The hereditary military nobility and officer caste of medieval and early-modern Japan from the 12th century to their abolition in the 1870s. They were the well-paid retainers of the daimyo (the great feudal landholders). They had high prestige and special privileges such as wearing two swords. They cultivated the codes of martial virtues, indifference to pain, and unflinching loyalty, engaging in many local battles. During the peaceful Edo era (1603 to 1868) they became the stewards and chamberlains of the daimyo estates, gaining managerial experience and education. The Meiji Revolution ended their feudal roles and they moved into professional and entrepreneurial roles.
Tureen: A serving dish for foods such as soups or stews, often shaped as a broad, deep, oval vessel with fixed handles and a low domed cover with a knob or handle. Over the centuries, tureens have appeared in many different forms, some round, rectangular, or made into fanciful shapes such as animals or wildfowl. Tureens may be ceramic (earthenware or porcelain) or silver, and customarily they stand on an undertray or platter made en suite.
Ukiyo-e: (Lit.: “Pictures of the floating world”). A genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries. It consists of woodblock prints and paintings of such subjects as female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; scenes from history and folk tales; travel scenes and landscapes; flora and fauna; and erotica. Some ukiyo-e artists specialized in making paintings, but most works were prints. Artists rarely carved their own woodblocks for printing; rather, production was divided between the artist, who designed the prints; the carver, who cut the woodblocks; the printer, who inked and pressed the woodblocks onto hand-made paper; and the publisher, who financed, promoted, and distributed the works. As printing was done by hand, printers were able to achieve effects impractical with machines, such as the blending or gradation of colors on the printing block. Ukiyo-e was central to forming the West’s perception of Japanese art in the late 19th century. From the 1870s Japonism became a prominent trend and had a strong influence on the early Impressionists such as Degas, Manet, and Monet, as well as Post-Impressionists such as van Gogh and Art Nouveau artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec.
Yakusha-e: Usually referred to as “actor prints” in English, are Japanese woodblock prints or, rarely, paintings, of kabuki actors, particularly those done in the ukiyo-e style popular through the Edo period (1603–1867) and into the beginnings of the 20th century. Most strictly, the term yakusha-e refers solely to portraits of individual artists (or sometimes pairs).