6 traditional forms of expression – art

Japanese art – A short introduction into painting and woodblocks

After an introduction into the different forms of Japanese drama, it is time to talk about Japanese art. Japan has had a rich art landscape throughout the centuries, ranging from ceramics to paintings and papercrafts. We think it is very hard to write about all of that in a short article so we have decided to focus on four Japanese artists that should be known by everyone who has an interest in the Japanese culture. We will also focus on the world of Japanese painting and woodblock prints because they provide better pictures. Bring out your brushes, wash your woodblocks and come with us as we paint a short history into the world of Japanese art.


Red Fuji, Southern Wind, Clear Morning by Hokusai.

Four artists who had a major impact on Japanese arts

As said in our introduction, Inari would like to focus on four artists who, in our opinion, had a major impact on the Japanese arts. Because the Japanese art landscape is so diverse and it is almost impossible to address all different forms and schools, we have decided to just talk about the art of painting and prints. First of all, we’ll tell you more about Sesshū Tōyō, a famous sumi-e artist from the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573). Our second artist will be the ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige who made a lot of woodblock prints during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The all-known Hokusai who was also active during the Edo period will be the third artist and to end our article we chose the modern artist Takashi Murakami.

Sesshū Tōyō – Master of Sumi-e

Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟 等楊) was a sumi-e artist during the Muromachi period. He was born into a samurai family and was supposed to become a Buddhist priest. During his life however, it became clear that he had a certain feel for the visual and he became a popular sumi-e artist. But what exactly is sumi-e? Sumi-e, or ink wash painting, is an originally Chinese art style wherein a brush and black ink is used to paint mostly landscapes. Thanks to the use of ink and water, a sumi-e artist is able to make different shades of black and grey. The artist uses a brush made from bamboo and hairs from different kinds of animals such as goat, horse, sheep, deer and wolf. Every kind of hair has a different effect on the stroke. Because it is impossible to redo a stroke or change one, a certain mastery is required to be a sumi-e artist.

View of Ama-no-Hashidate by Sesshu

View of Ama-no-Hashidate by Sesshū Tōyō.

Sesshū Tōyō’s most famous work is the 15-meter-long scroll named Long Scroll of Landscapes or Sansui Chokan (山水長巻). This work depicts the four seasons in sequence. Sesshū Tōyō took the Chinese way of painting and added his own meaning to it by a stronger contrast between dark and light, thicker lines and different perspectives. Another work from Sesshū Tōyō, Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma, shows, like the name might already have told you, a man offering his arm to a shrouded figure. This work was designated as a National Treasure of Japan in 2004.

Huike offering his arm to Bodhidharma by Sesshū Tōyō.

Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma by Sesshū Tōyō.

Hiroshige – Depicter of the Tōkaidō

Our second artist is Ando Hiroshige (安藤 広重), or Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重) and he was active during the latter half of the Edo period. Also coming from a samurai family, he was in charge of the prevention of fires in the Edo Castle. Once his parents died, he began painting and at the age of 15 he was permitted to sign his works with the name Hiroshige. He was mostly known for his ukiyo-e prints of landscapes. Ukiyo-e is an art style where woodblocks are used to print lovely paintings. The themes in this art style include landscapes, folktales, sumo wrestlers, beautiful women and Kabuki performers.

Station 11, Hakone by Hiroshige.

Station 11, Hakone by Hiroshige.

In his thirties, Hiroshige got the opportunity to travel to Kyoto along the Tōkaidō. During his journey he made sketches of the different resting points on the road between the two capitals. Once he returned to Edo, he turned these sketches into ukiyo-e works and made the series names The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. These series are well-known these days and are seen as a perfect example of Japanese art. Seeing the success of these series, Hiroshige continued working on art with the same theme. Coincidentally, works such as One Hundred Famous Views of Edo or The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō were also added to his name and fame.

The Plum Garden in Kameido by Hiroshige.

The Plum Garden in Kameido by Hiroshige.

Hokusai – Master of the Wave

Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎) is another ukiyo-e artist from the Edo period and is probably one of the most famous Japanese artists. During his life, he changed his name more than a hundred times and each time he changed his name can be linked with a change of style.  Born in an artisan family, it is believed that Hokusai began painting when he was six years old. When he was 18, he became an apprentice of Katsukawa Shunshō, an artist known for his ukiyo-e works of courtesans and Kabuki actors. After the death of his master, he became inspired by Western art and was thus expelled from the Katsukawa school. At that time he chose to depict other things in his works and he fell in love with the Japanese sceneries. During this period he experimented with different art styles such as surimono, another form of woodblock print, and manga.

Hokusai Manga.

Hokusai Manga.

The peak of Hokusai’s career came in his fifties. It was also the time where he was finally seen as an exceptional artist throughout Japan. Inspired by his obsession with Mount Fuji, he created his most famous series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The first work in this series is the Great Wave off Kanagawa, a work that is known by everyone in the world. This series was so well-received that he added ten more prints in the year following. Hokusai kept painting and making art until the day he died. Despite his waning popularity due to younger artists arriving on the scene, he never lost his creative motivation and kept on going. It is said that the last words on his deathbed were “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”.

Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai.

Takashi Murakami – Superflat combinations

Takashi Murakami (隆 村上) is the only artist in this article who is still alive. This contemporary Japanese artist started out as a boy from Tokyo inspired by anime and manga with the dream to become an animator. During his studies however, he chose to study nihonga, a traditional Japanese art style that utilises traditional contexts, depictions and themes. After receiving his Ph. D., he was fed up with the world that accompanies that form of art and started to explore the world of the contemporary art styles. Murakami received a fellowship at the Asian Cultural Council in New York and strategically decided to establish his name in the West first and to come back to Japan once his name was well-known. This strategy paid off!

An Enchanting Mushroom by Murasaki.

An Enchanting Mushroom by Murakami.

Murakami is also known for his creation of the term ‘Superflat’. ‘Superflat’ describes the combination of elements from Japan’s traditional art like Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kanagawa, and the aesthetics found in Japan’s post-war culture and society. His mix of ‘high’ art, or traditional art, and ‘low’ art, or popular art such as manga, found a large audience. A great example of this combination is the work titled 727. Murakami his works range from sculptures to paintings to animation videos and much more. He truly is an artist worth following and actually the favourite Japanese artist of this writer.

727 by Murasaki.

727 by Murakami.

Thank you for reading our intro into Japanese art. We hope you are inspired and will make your own works now. We’ll be back in two weeks for another installment in our column ‘6 traditional forms of expression’.

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