Category Archives: Painting & Sculpture

A study of Japanese Art & Design at the Freer Gallery

In the Western world, aesthetics is considered to be the branch of philosophy that is concerned with concepts of value and beauty as they relate to the arts.

Aesthetics, in the broadest sense, may be thought of as a world view, a view that may be markedly different in other cultures. Because of possible differences in world views and aesthetic stances of non-Western cultures, it is important to set aside Western aesthetics as criteria when making judgments about non-Western art.

The aesthetics of Japan developed in a unique fashion, partly because of its isolation from the world.It is only then, over the centuries, that interactions with foreign cultures influenced the traditional arts and aesthetics of Japan. For example, the Japanese made no distinction between fine arts and crafts prior to the introduction of such ideas by Europeans in the 1870s.

The Japanese aesthetic is nature-based and concerned with the beauty of studied simplicity and harmony with nature, expressed in every aspect of daily life. This concept of harmony in all things is called wabi-sabi. But since it represents a comprehensive Japanese world view, it is difficult to explain precisely in western terms.

To sum-up, wabi-sabi express a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble. It is the beauty of things unconventional. It correlates with the concepts of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes the importance of transcending ways of looking and thinking about existence.

Now, let’s try to understand this very peculiar world view through what we consider to be the Elements & Principles of design.

Hokusai, Kisoji no oku Amida ga taki “Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road”, circa 1832.


Hokusai plays with our minds through the notion of point in this print: on the one hand, there are two “point of focus”: a little scene on the left, where two men admire the view from their spectacular “vantage point”, and the main point of focus, the round hollow of the waterfall which evoques the “round eye” of Amida, Buddha of Boundless Light. This symbolism haves recourse to the notion of Gestalt, or “psychology of the form”, as the nearly perfect circle of the hollow is intended for the viewer to complete it in his own mind.


Suzuki Ozamu (1921-2001), Japan, Kyoto, 1987.


This piece of ceramic, which emulates the form of a Japanese thumb, has a very simple and pure line design. The peaceful structure is all about its smooth, horizontal and vertical lines which give it an harmonious shape. Horizontal lines evoke rest and stability, and the slightly longest vertical lines, spirituality.


Takiguchi Kazuo (b.1953), Stoneware with matte glaze, Japan, Kyoto, 1996.


This sculpture is tailored from a single sheet of clay, and the artist smoothed away all traces of fabrication. This process result in a full, smooth, three-dimensional sculpture, whose organic shape evokes the forms of a human or animal body. The way it occupies space, with its full, few and gathered body parts, demonstrates the notion of “positive form”.


Activities of the Twelve Months of the Year, by Nishikawa Sukeyuki, Japan, Edo Period, 18th Century. Handscroll, Ink on Paper.


Japanese scrolls such as this one read from right to left and provide an ideal format for design such as this representation of the activities of the twelves months of the year: Indeed, the chronological arrangements of motifs follows the linear movement of the eye through the composition. As the reader unroll the the scroll,  he is “acting” the work of art, which creates intimacy between the “public” and the work itself.


Landscape with Flowering Vines, Japan, Momoyama or early Edo period, early 17th century. Six panels folding screen; Ink, color, gold and silver on paper.


The series of panel exposed at the Freer Gallery perfectly illustrate the symbolic power of color. Indeed, the extensive use of gold in large-format Japanese paintings, such as folding screens and sliding panels, is not merely decorative: Gold not only reflects daylight or lamplight, imparts a translucent quality to the clouds and landscapes depicted. It was also strongly believed to have a protective power, which explains why it was so much used.


Kitamura Junko (b. 1956), Kyoto, Japan, 1993. Stoneware with black matte slip and white slip inlay. 


The pattern of this ceramic is composed of hundreds of hands-carved stamps. The repeated marks, inlaid with white liquid clay against the dark surface, resemble undulating strings of tiny bead. This composition confirms in some way the theory according to which there are a limited number of pattern, this one would fit the “flow pattern” category.


Incense Cabinet, Edo Period or Meji Era, 19th Century.


This incense box relation to texture is particularly interesting: Indeed, the finish so closely resemble a gleaming metallic surface that it almost appears to be the work of a goldsmith rather than a lacquer artist. However, it is only made of lacquer on wood… It is easy to be fooled, isn’t it?


Heron and Willow, Hanabusa Hitcho (1652-1724), Japan, Edo Period. Ink and color on paper.


The visual equilibrium of this composition, in other words, its “balance”, is provided by the position of the Heron. The tiny branches and the frail foot of the bird give a feeling of fragilness. However, as the body of the bird is symmetrically standing on this foot, which follows the axial vertical line of the panel, it seems firmly settled.


Kongorikishi, Kamakura Period, early 14thcentury, wood.


This dramatically posed figure is paired with an other which faces this one on the other side of a corridor of the Freer gallery. These sculpture were originally created to stand guard at the entrance of a temple, and represents the “benevolent kings” who are said to have protected Buddha. Their exaggerated proportions are certainly designed to inspire fear, and to evoke strength and power: Not only are they incredibly muscular, with wide eyes and mouth, but they are also way taller than a human being.


Hokusai, Handscroll with Miscellaneous Images, Edo Period, 1839 overall dimensions of scroll 37.2×1434.


Hokusai’s work gives special attention to placement and arrangement of object and space within the format of a picture, which confers a peculiar rhythm to his compositions. This is an other example of Japanes scrolls, which creates a timed movement through the work of the artist: the eye follow the elements one by one, and those are regularly spaced and repeated to create a sense of regularity and repetition.


Utagawa Torohayu, A Winter Party,  (1735-1814), Japan, Edo Period, Hanging scroll mounted on panel, Ink, color, and gold on silk


The scene displayed in this piece represents a party in an elite restaurant. However the attention the artist payed in depicting the background of the painting, the emphasis is put on the different figures, first,  through the contrast of their clothes’ vivid colors and the winter garden’s neutral colors and smooth hue. Secondly, by placing them in a central and symmetrical position.


“The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai, or the pathos of things in Japanese Aesthetics.

Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” is probably the most famous work of the Japanese artist. It is the first view of his major work of art, the “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji” created in 1831, and is displayed in the exhibition’s introductory gallery. It is a rather small (10 x 15 inch) but very fine colour woodcut which represents a gigantic wave curling over three tiny fisher boats. On the background, one can see a small, distant, snow-capped Mount Fuji. Only two colors are used in this picture: blue for the sea, the sailor’s clothe, and the base of the Mount Fuji. The sky and the boats are painted with a lighter hue. The white summit of the Mount Fuji contrasts on a darker horizon.

In this piece, Hokusai makes the viewer experience nature’s overwhelming power through the movements, contrasts and colors of the composition : the eye is at first cached by the main point of focus, the monstrous, disproportionate wave which occupies half of the space. The dramatically curved line of the wave perfectly frames the distant Mount Fuji, and is suspended in time like a huge paw with multiple foam claws about to grasp the frail fishing boats. The dark blue symbolizes the ocean’s brutality, but also ground forces as the sailors brace on their oars to survive. The first boat is partly under water, the main wave is about to engulf the second. The violent force of blue balance and contrasts sharply with the soothing, bright shade of the sky. It is indeed strange that despite the sea storm, the sun seems to shine on the scene.

However, the central theme here is not the wave but the Mount Fuji; however at first glance, it almost reads as another cap of foam. But precisely, it is its consistency with the lines and colors of the piece, as well as the construction of the picture around it which achieve the unity of the composition. Indeed, the Mount is placed in the right central part of the composition, which has to be read from the right to the left (instead of reading from the left to the right, as occidentals use to). Furthermore, it is painted with the two main colors of the picture. The message uniting this piece is conveyed through the contrast between the distant, quiet, and unchanging mount in the background and the violent and ephemeral foreground scene. Mount Fuji is like a spectator of this furtive scene, evoking a characteristic principle of Japanese aesthetics, the Mono no aware1 or “the Pathos of Things”. It is well described by this verse: “The sound of the Gion shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sōla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”2 The message is clear: the wave will swallow up the sailors, but even the wave will disappear long before the Mount Fuji.

This work is deeply interesting because it links Asian spirituality and western typical structures of design. First, it echoes the Taoist philosophy (according to which everything is divided into the yin and the yang) as well as the Buddhist philosophy (which says the elements built by man are ephemeral) and the Shinto (as it shows that nature is all powerful and sovereign, beyond the control of humans). But on the other hand, one can notice that Hokusai was influenced by western tradition, because of the use of perspective, and because he chose to represent daily life of common people. It is a very valuable piece, even to understand western art movements. Hokusai’s works were collected in Paris in the mid-19th century, especially by such impressionist artists as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and even influenced them as they further developed a fashion for Japonaiserie3.

1Parkes, Graham, “Japanese Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

2McCullough, Helen C. (trans.), 1988, The Tale of the Heike, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

3“Hokusai.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012