History of Japanese Art Part 2

Japanese Silk PaintingEarlier this week, we started to take a look at the history of art in Japan. As promised, we’re going to continue that exploration today, picking up right where we left off.

Japanese MandalaIt is the 8th century AD. Communications between Japan and China are relatively new and Buddhism has taken hold in Japan. Near the end of this century, an important staple of Buddhist art also becomes integrated into Japanese culture: the mandala. The mandala is a geometric spiritual map which consists on concentric circles or layers filled with religious symbols and designs. The ancient Japanese artists created mandalas on silk weaving and tapestries, as well as actually on their temples themselves.

During the Fujiwara period, starting around the year 1000 AD, the ancient Japanese began to prefer a particular branch of Buddhism called Amida Buddhism. The central belief of this religion was that people were transported to a “Paradise” after death. Artistic beauty was especially prized during this time in an effort to almost make a Paradise on Earth. The temples built in the Fujiwara Period are elaborate and filled with paintings and carvings and religious figures, not only Buddha himself but also the celestials, who guide the deceased to Paradise.



Scene from Genji Monogatari E-makiIt is around this time, too, that the art of painted scrolls and illustrated stories began to emerge. This art is called e-maki. The earliest known surviving example of this is the Genji Monogatari E-maki. It is a novel depicting the life of the emperor Genji and the experiences of those in his court. It was written and illustrated by a lady-in-waiting of the Empress Akiko. Her name was Murasaki Shikibu.

There tended also to be a division in subject with e-maki created by women and those created by men. The women’s e-maki tended to be about everyday life, court, and romance, and men’s e-maki tended to record history and battles. The women’s e-maki is also called onna-e and the men’s, otoko-e.


At the end of the 12th century AD, war broke out and attention was taken away from the arts. Despite the shift in focus to warfare, a new style began to influence Japanese art: realism. This is most often seen in sculpture. The subjects of these sculptures continue to be religious. They were carved either out of large stones or sometimes from wood.

Japanese Fabric PaintingAfter the war, widows of those who had died created artwork which could be seen as the predecessor to comic strips. Sanctuaries were created across the country for those widows and in those sanctuaries, it was common to learn basic writing and reading, though in a simplified way compared to what a lot of the historical texts were written in. They painted scenes like in e-maki and wrote the characters’ dialogue next to the speaker.


Next Tuesday, we’re going to finish up this series of Japanese art history blogs, bringing ourselves up nearly to the modern day. If you enjoyed this exploration into Japanese art, perhaps you’d like to take a look at some of our other art history blogs. We’ve touched on Andean art, Australian art, and Egyptian art.


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