Cultures & Traditions

Japanese Painting and Calligraphy

Japanese painting and calligraphy are deeply entwined arts; their unique relationship results from sharing the same tools: brushes, ink, paper, and silk. Technically, brush strokes in painting derive from prescribed brush movements in writing characters. Painting and calligraphy emerged as art forms from techniques introduced with Buddhist sects from China beginning in the 7th century CE, when the newly emerging Yamato state engaged in wholesale borrowing of Chinese ways, thought, and language. Buddhist practices emphasized painted icons and ritual copying of sacred texts and employed brush and ink techniques that became the basis for secular art forms.

In the Heian period (794-1185 CE), the imperial court turned inward, canceling official embassies to China and consciously adapting the borrowed Chinese culture. Buddhist painting became less formal, assuming a more decorative character, including cut gold accents indicative of the developing native aesthetic. In calligraphy, a script based on modified Chinese characters facilitated transcription of conversational prose and Japanese poetry, which was formerly an oral tradition.

From the 10th through the 12th centuries, an art style termed yamato-e, meaning Japanese painting, emerged. It featured local seasonal events, Japanese figures engaged in everyday pursuits, and scenes illustrating Japanese poetic themes. Illustrations accompanying prose literature in handscroll format became a hallmark of the age, as epitomized in the 11th century novel The Tale of Genji. Yamato-e's bright opaque colors and two dimensional patterning generated an intimate mood and contrasted with the formal landscapes of kara-e, or Chinese painting.

Through Japanese Buddhist centers, contact with China resumed in the 13th century, and Zen Buddhism was introduced from the continent. Zen emphasis on self-reliance appealed to the warrior class, which ruled in the emperor's name. Warrior taste dominated artistic trends; unblinking realism was standard and reflected in portraits of religious figures and quasi-divine military leaders, as well as battle stories replete with blood and gore. An emphasis on naturalistic detail, depicting scenes from all levels of society, set the stage for artistic genres like fuzoku-ga (scenes of daily life) and ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world).

Zen temples dominated cultural life for several centuries where the priest-painters introduced the dramatic painting styles of China's Song and Yuan dynasties (12th - 14th centuries). The ritual tea ceremony cultivated by this priestly circle became a major stimulus for art. Sumi-e, or "ink painting," modified to Japanese aesthetics, was secularized, and kara-e (Chinese-style painting) traditions were championed by the Kano lineage of artists. A parallel artistic lineage associated with the court drew upon _yamato-e _styles under the leadership of the Tosa school.

Chinese influence again engulfed Japan in the 17th century, when Tokugawa shoguns established Confucian philosophy as their guiding principle and anointed the Kano school as official artists. Confucian scholarship promoted intellectual ideals and the scholar-painter tradition, which popularized painting, poetry, and calligraphy outside the aristocratic court.

Arts of the Edo period (1600-1868) encompassed tremendous diversity. In addition to innovative ukiyo-e painting and woodblock traditions and idealistic Confucian scholar-painters, a form of yamato-e art termed Rimpa revived aristocratic taste in decorative arts, painting, and calligraphy. Local art forms, including folk painting like Otsu-e, also proliferated. Manifold visual art traditions stood firmly in place until the the late 1860s when feudalism ended. The Meiji period (1868-1912) brought a return to imperial rule and the emergence of modern Japan. Towards the end of the 19th century, the term nihonga (Japanese-style painting) came into use to distinguish modern Japanese painting from western style painting (yoga) and yamato-e, though nihonga artists continued to use traditional materials and techniques.

Drawn from

Web Resources

World Digital Library
View a hand-copied Buddhist sutra from the 12th century A.D.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Learn more about Yamato-e painting.