Ian Ropke writes…
The history of traditional Japanese painting
The history of Nihonga, the traditional Japanese manner of painting, can be traced back to the beginning of the Heian period.
A manuscript from 999 mentions a style of painting called Yamato-e (Yamato was the old name of Japan). When exactly this new school of painting originated is not known, but it is clear that Japan’s break with the Tang Court of China, prepared the soil for the growth of a purely ‘Japanese’ art. Yamato-e broke away from the Chinese-inspired Kara-e by favoring typical Japanese subject matter and developing a narrative style of depicting events: the e-makimono or scroll painting.
It was not until the beginning of the Meiji era that China’s position as Japan’s cultural mentor was replaced by Europe. Soon Japan came under the influence of the Western tradition of oil painting (Yusaiga). In no time at all, Japanese art, literature, and music were more and more like branches of the Western arts. As is common in such circumstances, a counter-reaction set in almost immediately. Perhaps it was at this time that the concept of Nihonga as a style of art different from the Western style (Yoga) came to be accepted.
Throughout Japanese history, political and military power has shifted constantly, but Kyoto has managed to retain its status as the cultural and traditional center for the arts. Hence, examples of Nihonga have been beautifully preserved here in their original forms. They can be admired in scroll form, individual panels, sliding doors, temple walls, Noh stages, folding screens, and beautifully decorated fans. A wide variety of subject matter has been depicted, and although subjects may have changed throughout the years, a number of devices which characterize the tradition have remained unchanged:
1) an emphasis on colorful forms, simplified to create ornamental patterns;
2) a strong preference for delineating shape by silhouetting it against a background of different color;
3) little emphasis on shading, and thus a flattened image;
4) a view which renders the essential of scenes with the greatest economy to maximize the beauty of the formal design;
5) a final opaque quality that contrasts with the oil-based colors utilized in the west;
6) rigorous selection of materials and tools.
It should perhaps be pointed out that the above characteristics are no longer exclusive to Nihonga and that this traditional style of painting, born out of nationalistic pride, will eventually be absorbed into a wider, global framework.
Paper Used: Most Nihon-ga artists use mashi (hemp paper). There are many kinds of mashi even today, differing in character depending on where they are made. Some mashi is made in Otaki Village near Fukui and possibly still in Toyama and Nigata prefectures.
Brushes: Nearly 80 percent of the brushes (hake or fude) in Japan are made in the town of Kumano in Hiroshima Prefecture using horse hair, sheep hair, or a combination thereof.
Pigments and Binding Agents: The powdered colors are mixed with a glue binder (nikawa) made from animal hooves (cow, deer, and rabbit) as well as fish and whale bones.
This is a two-part post. The second part Saiundo Traditional Art Shop will be published tomorrow…
Full text by Ian Ropke. Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.
The current exhibition at Momak, The National Museum of Modern Art Kyoto is The Inagaki Brothers: Chusei & Toshijiro. Featuring several fine examples of Nihonga (read a Japan Times review here), it continues until June 27th. More details are available here. Access information and a map are here.