Listening - Kiku - Japanese traditional scroll
The art of Japanese painting is full of mesmerizing
Asian charm when you look at it from a purely
But it is also a subject that can be a bit confusing for
novices when you want to learn more about it.
Different painting schools and styles,
a variety of different media, the deep roots in
Zen Buddhism and the use of specific terms from the
Japanese language make this art form not always
easily accessible for Westerners.
To understand Japanese painting, one should know that
it has always been torn between three mainstreams
movements - Chinese, Japanese and Western.
History of Japanese Painting
As nearly all forms of art, early painting had been
under the influence of the Chinese culture. By and by,
new and specifically Japanese styles were developed and
painting schools were established. Each school practized
their own style. But the Chinese influence remained
strong until the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867).
There is a general term to describe painting in Japanese
style - yamato-e.
After the opening of Japan to the West under the
Meiji period (1868-1912),
the early years were marked
by an exaggerated embracing of Western art. The newly
founded universities established departments for
Western art, called Western academic artists into the
country as teachers and sent out students
to study art in Europe - mainly in France and Italy.
Hand in hand with a rising nationalism, the pendulum soon
went back into the other direction. The public opinion
began to recognize the richness of the old tradition
and even condemned Western art.
The twentieth century was marked by cooperation. Art
colleges offer departments for both Japanese and
Western painting styles.
Painting Schools and Styles
- Suibokuga is the term for painting in black
ink. It was adopted from China and strongly influenced
by Zen Buddhism. During the 15th century ink painting
gained a more Japanese style of its own.
Kano Masanobu (1453-1490) and his son Kano Motonobu
(1476-1559) established the Kano painting school.
It began as a protest against the Chinese ink painting
technique in black. The Kano school used bright colors
and introduced daring compositions with large flat areas
that later should dominate the
Kano school split into several branches over the time,
but remained dominant during the Edo period. Many ukiyo-e
artists were trained as Kano painters.
- Tosa-ha was a painting school specialized on
small miniature formats in book illustrations.
The founder was Tosa Yukihiro in the 14th century.
The Tosa school became something like the official art
school of the imperial court in Kyoto. The imperial
court was a secluded world of its own, politically
powerless, but well equipped with funds by the governing
shoguns to dedicate themselves to fine arts.
- The nanga painting style was strong at the
beginning of the 19th century during the bunka
and bunsai era. The advocates of this style
painted idealized landscapes and natural subjects like
birds and flowers for a cultural elite. The style
was rather Chinese.
The shijo school was a split in the 18th century
from the official Kano school. The shijo style is
characterized by subjects taken from people's
everyday life. A kind of realism with sometimes satirical
Japanese painters used a wide variety of media over the
centuries. The only one you will not find until the late
nineteenth century, is the Western media of the framed
The mainstream media used by traditional Japanese painters
Horizontal scrolls called emakimono. The word
means literally translated "image (e) of a rolled (maki)
thing (mono)". Emakimono were created by pasting
single sheets together to form a long roll. The images
were viewed from right to left. Emakimono are
among the oldest forms of paintings. Instead of
emakimono you can find the words makimono
or emaki. It means the same.
Vertical scrolls called kakemono. It is the
"thing" that you hang on a wall. A kakemono is
mounted on a roller on both ends. The roller on top has
a string attached so that you can hang the scroll
vertically. The roller on bottom is meant to straighten
the image out by its weight. Vertical scrolls became
popular during the Edo period. It comes closest to
the Western framed canvas painting and was the ideal
form of decorating a wall for the small Japanese houses.
Another painting media were folding screens, called
byobu in Japanese. They had come
from China to Japan in the 7th century and were used as
room separators, mostly with 4 or 6 panels. Due to their
sizes, the use was limited to temples and palaces. Screens
became a major medium for lush and elaborate paintings.
With the rise of the merchant class, the demand for
screens moved to the rich towns people during the
Edo period. The subjects on screens were similar to those
on ukiyo-e (Japanese prints).
Sliding doors, called fusuma were another
media for Japanese painting.
During the Muromachi (1333-1573) and Momoyama period
(1573-1603) powerful feudal lords built castles and
commissioned painters to decorate interior walls with
paintings. The Japanese term is shoheiga.
Also fans - uchiwa - were a popular medium to paint on.
Japanese paintings may evoke an association with landscapes
and natural scenes drawn with a few genial brush strokes.
The impression may come from the majority of the scroll
paintings that are to be found in galleries and museums.
But it is only a part of the story.
Painting subjects were as diverse as we know it from
Japanese prints. And of course each of the media used
had its own preferred main focus. Some rather popular
- shiki-e - Landscapes during the four seasons.
- meisho-e - Views of famous places.
- monogatari-e - Scenes from the life at the imperial court in Kyoto.
- nanban-byobu - Images of Westerners on screens from the time of the landing
of Portuguese and Dutch ships in the Southern parts of Japan.
- rakuchu-rakugai-zu - Views from Kyoto.
- kabuki-e - Images from the kabuki theater.
- bijinga - Images of beautiful women, usually women from
the pleasure quarters.
Japanese Painting Glossary
- byobu - Japanese folding screens, usually made of 4 or 6 parts.
- e - The character "e" means "picture" or "painting" in the Japanese language.
- emakimono - Horizontal picture scrolls.
- fusuma - Japanese sliding paper doors.
- fuzokuga - genre pictures of manners and customs.
- hakubyo - Black and white ink painting.
- kano - Name of a painting school, named after its founder, Kano Masanobu (1453-1490).
- kara-e - Chinese style painting.
- kakemono - Vertical scrolls.
- meisho-e - Pictures of famous places.
- nanban-byobu - Screens with pictures of Westerners from the late 17th and early 18th century.
- nanga - Painting school from the early 19th century depicting mountains and valleys in Chinese style.
- rakuchu-rakugai-zu - Views of Kyoto.
- rin-pa - Painting school that practiced a decorative, lush style.
- sansuiga - Landscape painting.
- shijo-ha - Painting School in Kyoto.
- shira-e - Image painted in black ink without or only minimal colors.
- shoheiga - Paintings on walls.
- suibokuga - Paintings in black ink of landscapes in Zen manner.
- uchiwa - Japanese fans in round shape.
- yamato-e - Japanese style painting.
Sources used for this article
- Friedrich B. Schwan, "Handbuch Japanischer Holzschnitt", 2003,
IUDICIUM Verlag, Postfach 701067, D-81310 München, ISBN 3-89129-749-1
Author: Dieter Wanczura