Ethereal landscapes and elegant calligraphy are typical motifs of Japanese art. But how did these come about and how exactly have they influenced artists from around the world over the years?
Japanese art can be traced back millennia and can take many different forms, from delicate pottery and wonderful woodblock prints to intricate ink drawings and exquisite origami. With so many centuries of creativity to unpack, we’ll be focusing on the country’s most important artistic periods and identifying its most significant artists.
Japan’s art history spans almost 12,000 years, making it one of the oldest in the world. The nation’s art has been heavily influenced throughout this time by both ancient Japanese traditions and the nation’s many encounters with other global cultures.
In the very early days, art mainly took the form of sturdy yet simplistically decorated clay pots which often served a functional purpose in the kitchen. Many of the styles that have been discovered from this period are still echoed in contemporary Japanese tableware, including the use of deep, almost bullet-shape bowls.
As the centuries progressed though, a much more recognisable form of Japanese art began to take shape.
This is especially true between the 8th and 11th centuries – or what’s now known as the Heian period. During this era, Japan started to break away from China (which, up until that point, had heavily influenced its culture and politics).
As a result, brand-new forms of art began to emerge. Buddhism had previously been introduced to Japan by the Chinese, but now people turned to more secular art: art that is devoid of any religious association. This includes Yamato-e style paintings which were inspired by the decorative scrolls that were much loved by China’s Tang Dynasty at that time.
Rich colours and an almost illustrative style made Yamato-e particularly popular. A wonderful example of this early Japanese art is the Genji scroll. Produced by Murasaki Shikibu during the 11th century, this stunning handscroll is beautifully adorned with paintings of aerial Japanese architecture and figures possessing more unsophisticated features.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and we enter perhaps Japan’s most well-known artistic period. ‘Edo’ refers to what we now know as Tokyo and it was here where some of the very first Japanese prints were produced.
Traditionally, these are created using the woodblock technique (more on that below). The subject matter and style varied drastically, from depictions of peaceful natural landscapes to paintings of numerous battle scenes (many of which strongly reflected historical events).
This eclecticism was largely down to the political landscapes of Japan at the time. It went through a 250-year period of being run by a strict feudal government and much of the country was cut off from the rest of the world. This had a huge impact on its creative practices and overall culture, with many choosing to revive more ancient and traditional art forms.
It’s undeniable that several major artistic periods have helped define Japanese art. Nevertheless, there are also a number of specific artists who we have to thank for the country’s easily identifiable – and infinitely beautiful – creative forms.
This highly prestigious Japanese artist launched his career during the late 16th century, just before the Edo period, and his works are now revered as National Treasures in Japan.
Hasegawa Tohaku may have come from relatively humble beginnings; however, he rose swiftly to fame for his outstanding silkscreen prints and scrolls which, like many celebrated Japanese artists, largely included nature as their subject. Trees, birds and stark yet ethereal landscapes were the main features of his creations, with many featuring the addition of decorative gold leaf.
A particular highlight is Tohaku’s enchanting depiction of pine trees and their shadows. Painted across several panels, it's relatively simplistic and yet truly striking. This dramatic juxtaposition has helped make it one of Tohaku’s most celebrated artworks today.
You’ll likely have glimpsed one of Katsushika Hokusai’s paintings at least once before. He rose to fame during the Edo period thanks to his extraordinary prints which largely depicted Japanese landscapes. This includes a series of over 30 prints featuring the mighty Mount Fuji.
His simplistic style and exceptional knack for creating pleasing compositions made his works a key source of inspiration for many Western artists, including several Impressionist painters like Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar-Claude Monet.
This artist is a little more modern, with his artistic heyday falling just before World War II. Yokoyama Taikan was one of the founders of the nihonga movement: a period of Japanese art which deviated away from the bold line drawings of the 19th century and made good use of a more natural colour palette.
Taikan, just like Hokusai, became known for his portrayals of Mount Fuji. Despite travelling to Europe, much of his work had very traditional leanings and he preferred creating images of wild Japanese landscapes. This includes his wonderful Cherry Blossoms series.
Some of the most iconic Japanese artwork today takes the form of woodblock prints. This ancient practice was very popular during the 17th and 18th centuries (the country’s so-called Edo period), and it was used to create stunning paintings, text scrolls and even books.
In its basic form, woodblock printing involves first painting a scene, object or words on gampi (thin paper). It’s then glued face down onto a block of smooth wood (traditionally cherry wood) and the wood is carefully chiselled away around the lines of the image or text. The outline is then painted with water-based ink and a piece of paper or fabric (often silk) is applied on top.
Next, a special disc-shaped tool called a baren is used to help transfer the ink from the wood to the paper/fabric. Early creations included just one colour of ink, but as the practice developed, woodblock prints could include multiple colours applied using several different wooden blocks.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of woodblock painting is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Created by Hokusai in the 1830s, it depicts three wooden fishing vessels being tossed around on huge, rolling waves. The attractive composition, genius use of Prussian blue paint and inclusion of Mount Fuji in the background made it an instant success, both in Japan and across Europe. In fact, the painting remains to this day one of the most reproduced pieces of Japanese wall art.
When it comes to Japanese art at Art Republic, we’re all about the modern and the slightly 'out there'.
Yayoi Kusama is known for her thematic interest in psychedelic colours, repetition, and pattern – most famously dots. She is acknowledged as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan, and an important voice of the avant-garde, as well as a precursor of the pop art, minimalist and feminist art movements. At Art Republic, you’ll find her stunning pumpkin sculpture in either red or yellow.
Takashi Murakami is famed for his playful art works that blur the line between high and low culture. He combines various artistic styles and motifs that often draw from anime, Japanese painting and contemporary culture, as well as taking inspiration from his own art historical background. His pop culture references can be seen in his Homage to Francis Bacon painting and Billie Eilish doll – he also worked with the American singer on the music video for her song You Should See Me in a Crown.
Want to decorate your home or office with some breath-taking Japanese art? Browse our full range of current works or take a look at prints by artists, from Henri Matisse to Edouard Manet, that have been heavily influenced by Japan’s ancient creative practices.