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Japanese Art: From Hokusai to Kusama


Japanese Art: From Hokusai to Kusama
Yayoi Kusama’s INFINITY MIRRORED ROOM - LET’S SURVIVE FOREVER. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

History of Art in Japan

The scope of Japanese art covers a large array of styles and mediums, from ancient pottery to ink painting, sculpture and oil painting. In the tenth millennium B.C.E, the production of ceramics was initiated by early inhabitants, leading to an expansive history across many periods that includes the earliest known artifacts of their culture. Today, Japanese ceramics are amongst one of the finest in the world. Together with China and Korea, Japanese art fostered intermittent exchanges with the cultures and influences around them. Notable Japanese periods include the Jōmon period where hunter-gatherers decorated clay vessels; Asuka and Nara period where Japan saw an influx of continental Asian culture permeated; Edo period with their brilliantly colored figures and motifs; and the prewar and postwar period where Japan began responding to Western art forms. 

For centuries, art in Japan was seen solely on an aristocratic level, and only later did urbanization allow for a market for art to the masses. This saw art from the Edo period to the Prewar period supported by merchants, with the public as consumer supporting the art of the post-war period till today. With this surge of popularity, the art that was produced spanned both religious and secular, with secular art tying close to Buddhist and Confucian principles of Zen concepts that have manifested through to Japanese art that is produced today. 

Katsushika Hokusai, The Underwave off Kanagawa. Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 

Painting styles that influenced Japanese art 

Painting is considered the preferred artistic expression in Japan. This can be credited to how the Japanese wrote with brushes rather than pens up till modern times, allowing for familiarity and sensitivity to the genre of painting and it’s aesthetics. This attributes towards the popularity of calligraphy, leading to the outgrowths of genres such as ink and watercolor painting. While painting has deep roots in Japan that go as far back to the Buddhist mandalas in Heian-kyō (now known as Kyoto), the genre has undergone massive evolution even influencing other genres, leading to the most recognizable works in the history of Japanese art. This includes the oeuvre of artists such as Hokusai, the artist behind ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. While this work is a woodblock print, Hokusai’s career as an artist comes shortly before when he completed a 240m² painting during a festival in Tokyo, later leading to his explorations into nature from which ‘The Great Wave’ series came. Such works were even collected by European artists such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh. 

Japan has openly accepted Western influences that were introduced in the 16th century. Western influences specifically constituted the rise of oil painting and its techniques such as perspectives in landscapes along with an array of Western aesthetic concepts. These techniques and concepts have then manifested across the genres of traditional ink and watercolor painting, classical oil painting, and exists in Japanese contemporary art produced today. During Japan’s prewar period, institutions such as the Technological Art School was opened and employed Italian teachers to push Western methods of painting. At the same time, however, there were artists of both Japanese and American descent who encouraged Japanese artists to keep to their traditional scope with the intent of putting a more contemporary spin on it. These move towards the contemporary allowed for Japanese art to extend internationally, gaining interests in Calcutta, London, and Boston in the lead up to first world war. 

By the end of the 19th century, strong relationships were formed between Japan and the West. One of the most important movements, Impressionism, found itself greatly influenced by Japanese art. Japanese painters such as Koide Narashige, Hazama Inosuke, and Hayashi Shizue also moved to Paris with the intentions of picking up Western techniques and theories that then honed their practice. 

Koide Narashige, Still Life with a Globe, 1925. Image courtesy of Hiroshima Museum of Art. 

Art in Postwar Japan

The post-war period in Japan saw traditional Japanese art endure in architecture, music, dance, and literary forms. Art became heavily endorsed by not only the Japanese people but also the government. The most prominent group to surface from this period was the influential Gutai group. It is known as the first radical postwar artistic group in Japan, founded by the painter Jiro Yoshihara and “mail art” pioneer Shozo Shimamoto. This group actively produced art past the conventions of tradition, creating large-scale site-specific environments, multimedia works, performances, and theatrical events. Through these mediums, they sought to explore relationships between body, matter, time and space all whilst pursuing originality. The Gutai Manifesto written by Yoshihara espresso a fascination with beauty in the damaged and decayed, and further states that “Gutai art does not alter matter but rather speaks of the delicate interaction between spirit and matter that ultimately enables art to tell a story and possess life and freshness.”

Kazuo Shiraga, Untitled, 1961. Image courtesy of Koller Auctions. 

Setting the importance of freedom of expression, Gutai made use of innovative materials and techniques to challenge imaginations and redefine what art could truly be. They also aimed at making and doing what the art ecology of Japan had never witnessed before. Coupled with the pursuit of global collaboration, Gutai artwork began to be exhibited in American and European cities with its popularity taking flight. 

Their first exhibition was held at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1958. It faced a slew of accusations from critics who claimed that the Gutai works had far too many similarities with that of Abstract Expressionist pioneer Jackson Pollock. It was later realized that Gutai art did not copy but rather was what inspired them to address issues with freedom after World War II in Japan. Gutai expanded to have significant influence of the Fluxus Movement (where Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama contributed significantly), was promoted by European artists and inspired the work of many non-Japanese artists. This group even went so far as to have anticipated works that constituted Happenings and Performances by artists such as Yves Klein, as well as the realm of conceptual art.

Atsuko Tanaka, Electric Dress. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim

The beginnings of Japanese contemporary art 

The popularity and acceptance of the Gutai Group were essentially what kickstarted Japan’s contemporary art era. Other bold experimental movements in Postwar Japan also included Hi Red Centre and later Mono-ha. After which, Japan grew to become an economic giant in the 1980s and fostered a new generation of artists who began merging fine art with pop culture. Now household names in the world of contemporary art include Yoshitomo Nara who blends his paintings with the influences of manga comics of his childhood; Ryoji Ikeda with his videos and music that creates fragmented experiences for his viewers, and of course Takashi Murakami who successfully combines art and pop. 

Ryoji Ikeda, Test Pattern, commissioned by Théâtre de Gennevilliers, 2010. Image courtesy of Forma. 

Murakami and his ‘Superflat’ movement were not only influenced by anime but also dates its influences back to the woodblock prints of the 17th century as a result of its ‘flatness’. This movement paved the way for artists such as Aya Takano and Chiho Aoshima who create adorable, or “kawaii” works, sprinkled with dark social critiques. 


Japanese contemporary art now 

Contemporary art has evolved from the influences of the aforementioned artists and transpired across all mediums. ‘Superflat’ artists continue to dominate the Japanese art world and beyond, and Japanese traditions continue to be re-envisioned with contemporary techniques creating new experiences and modes of artistic production. Multidisciplinary artist Yayoi Kusama creates ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ that seek to foster out-of-body experiences through repetitive illusions. Artist Kohei Nawa takes on the age-old tradition of nature portraiture of animals by exploring digital culture and contemporary spirituality, creating them with 3D printing and complex computer models. The ever-popular collective teamLab has illuminated an entire forest in Japan with interactive sensors that make trees “breathe” as viewers walk by, and continue to bring Japanese themes to the digital landscapes they create. 

Kohei Nawa, PixCell-Red Deer. Image courtesy of the National Gallery Victoria. 

It is through these examples that we realize how Japanese artists hold tradition closely, yet are open to new forms of interpretation. Their roots have persevered and will continue to do so, integrating the evolution of technologies around them rather than interpreting the two as mutually exclusive. 


Japanese contemporary art & design on The Artling 

Japanese artists continue to have a stronghold on the world of not only contemporary art but also design. They make works that reference their Japanese origins, further expanding on the themes that surround them. Us too at The Artling continue to feature works by Japanese artists across a wide range of artistic expressions. From paintings to ceramics, take a look at what we have in store: 


Japanese Design


Shallows by Kazunaga Sakashita


Reconstruction of the shell by oog design studio


BUD VASES by Kei Tominaga


dish of light C by Kouichi Okamoto / Kyouei Design


Find by Kotaro Machiyama


Lotus (Pink) / Summer by Hisahiro Fukasawa


Vampire by Kazuhiro Higashi


Lips You Touch by Keeenue


Flowers by Hisahiro Fukasawa


Festival by Tetsuya Toshima


Acid Bloom - 25 by Mika Ninagawa


Torso 5 "Talk to Me" by Naoko Tosa


Wild Cherry Blossom by Yoichiro Nishimura


Aji by Maki Hayashida


Untitled by Éi Kaneko


archegraph study by Yuya Suzuki




Cabbage by Sara Shimizu


Now that you're here, why not check out more works by Japanese contemporary artists by clicking here
You can also take a look at collectible design items by Japanese designers by clicking here

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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