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Japanese Art – Old and New, Western and Eastern

Generally, Japanese Art has been influenced by the invasion of new and foreign ideas that get engrossed, imitated and finally, assimilated into Japanese culture.  Many art critics will argue that earliest complex art came out of the 7th an 8th centuries. 

This early art was strongly influenced by the religion of Buddhism.  In the 9th century Japanese artists turned away from China’s influence to develop forms that were more native to their own culture.

Painting is the preferred art form in Japan. This follows from the tradition of use of brushes that were originally meant for writing.  This art form created a familiarity with brush technique and further developed into paintings.  Besides paintings, in Japan, there are sculptures with themes largely associated with religion, and ceramics that are considered to be among the finest in the world. 

Japanese painting was introduced to Western world around the 1870’s and was brought to Europe Italian artists.  At the same time Japanese artists retained their traditional themes and techniques.  In the later half of the 19th century, Japanese art, which is valued for its simplicity and colorful style, had an impact on other Western forms of art as well, especially impressionist movement (see Van Gogh).

Many artists continue --  by renewing it -- the tradition of the classic Japanese arts such as the paint on folding screen, engraving, calligraphy, ikebana.

Full-scale contact with Western art following the Meiji Restoration created in Japan a new tradition of Western-style painting (yoga), mainly in oils, in addition to influencing the time-honored Japanese style of painting (Nihonga).

European methods of sculpting were also introduced and popularized in Japan, in later years. In 1898 Okakura Kakuzo (Tenshin) founded the Japan Fine Arts Academy.

The Japan Fine Arts Academy strove to improve and further develop Japanese-style painting. Meanwhile, three Italian teachers who invited to Japan by the national Technical Fine Arts School in 1876 laid the foundation of Western-style painting and sculpture in Japan. Many master painters and sculptors emerged after that, some of them receiving their training in Europe.

Contemporary Japanese art has been strongly influenced by postwar American pop art and other art forms. Western art and sculpture, which have attained international levels exist and are as popular as traditional Japanese painting and calligraphy.  Both types of art influence each other.

Even though the main focus of this section is visual art, it needs to be noted that in architecture too, Western styles have spread rapidly since the Meiji era. Japanese cities are conquered by skyscrapers, some of them employing traditional Japanese design mixed with contemporary. 

The art of the older generation (Lee, Wakabayashi, Toya, Koshimizu, Kuno, Tsuchiya) is imbued with spiritual values and ideas according to which the artist and reality are part of a universe that is larger than an individual. Their work is quite elementary, also in terms of material – for example wood -- being related to nature and basic human existence in keeping with Japanese traditions. Much of their work centers on the significance of nature and is influenced by Buddhism and Shintoism.

The younger generation that made its appearance in the 1990s struck out in completely new directions in visual arts. They were fascinated by, for instance, Japan’s role in World War Two, by present-day Japanese society, by the position of women, by art as a form of communication (Saitoh, Tabaimo, Miyajima, Shimabuku). The young artists directly to their social environment or seek inspiration in the human condition.

But even among the younger artists there are those who revert in a personal and for Westerners highly Japanese manner to themes from nature (Hidaka), the experience and meaning of life (Suzuki) or elements from Japan’s centuries-old culture and customs.

The younger generation has abandoned the traditional techniques of their elders in favor of such media as photography, film, video and installations of everyday objects. This young generation is open to the world of art outside Japan as well and incorporates whatever influences them outside of their own country into their art.

Japanese artists travel extensively and are rapidly joining the new international generation of nomadic artists. They take on exchange with their contemporaries, but remain true to their origins.

One of the best illustrated examples of trends in current Japan is an exhibit called KIRO (Be Alive.  IKIRO is one of the projects of new Japanese artists, is primarily intended to accustom the public with two kinds of Japanese artists: those who traditionally seek authenticity and reflect on their own identity and their relationship to nature, and those who are intensely concerned with the world they live in and with Japan’s recent history.

Unfortunately, a newest and a sort of a third category - consisting largely of young artists – is still missing from this exhibition: Japanese neo-pop, rooted in the popular Manga comic-strip culture, and the world of video games, PC and the Internet.