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Decorative Motifs in Japanese Art

Stencil for textile desigh, gift of Ms. Rabbini, Haifa

Decorative Motifs in Japanese Art

 

September 13th - December 14th, 2003

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer

 

Since the dawn of history, Japanese craftsmen and artists have been creating items in a variety of techniques such as ceramic, lacquer, woodcarving, painting, textile dyeing and metalwork, skillfully embellished with their preferred decorative motifs (soshoku no shudai). There are many such items in the collection of the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, mainly from the 14th-20th centuries.

 

In the Jomon period (ca.12,500-200 BCE) ceramic vessels were decorated with impressed motifs, usually rope patterns (whence the term "Jomon" - "rope pattern"). In the Yayoi period (200 BCE-ca. 250 CE), the art of throwing pottery on the wheel reached Japan from China via Korea, and new designs appeared - zigzags, triangles in saw-tooth patterns (tasuki), whirlpools, and complex abstract linear designs. In the Kofun period (250-552) metal wares were embellished with motifs that had also come to Japan from China, such as dragons, or the four deities representing the four winds of heaven - the green tiger of the East, the white tiger of the West, the red phoenix of the South, and the black tortoise-snake of the North. Other motifs included people, horses, wagons, jewels (magatama; semi-precious comma-shaped stones), animals and birds.

 

As of the 6th century CE, decorative motifs from East Asia, especially of the Chinese Tang era (618-907) appeared. Through China, by way of Korea, there arrived motifs from the Buddhist art of India, from Persia, and from Rome's Eastern Empire, as well as from Central Asia along the Silk Road. Influenced by Chinese paintings of the Tang period, designs incorporated sacred sites (alamkara), such as the buildings and gardens of the "Western Paradise" of Buddha Amida, as described in the Buddhist sutras. In the Asuka period (552-645), the flowering honeysuckle (nindo) was frequently represented as an arabesque (karakusa; "Chinese grass"), a rhythmic decoration with many variations, seen on the haloes of Buddhist sculptures, or embellishing roof-tiles. This motif apparently came to the East from Greece. Also during the Asuka period, other decorative motifs reached Japan from the mainland - such as the lotus flower, clouds, and four-petalled blossoms.

 

During the Nara period (645-794), contacts with the mainland increased. With China there was direct contact, and the capital city of Nara was modelled on the Chinese capital, Chang-an. In 756, after the death of the Emperor Shomu, his widow transferred more than 600 items he had collected to the Shosoin Treasure House in the Todaiji Temple, together with a detailed catalogue.  Many of the items in this collection were brought to Japan from China and Persia, and some were made by Chinese and Korean artisans who had come to Japan, or by local artists. Even though the Chinese influence is evident in the Japanese works, there is also a dynamic integration of decorative elements from the mainland and from Japan itself.  (For additional information, see Decorative Motifs during the Nara period)

 

At the beginning of the Heian period (794-1185) the Nara motifs derived from the decorative arts of China were still very prevalent in Japan. However, long-tailed birds, the moon, the sun, and landscapes, all ornamented with gold and/or silver also appeared. Artists began applying gold leaf (kirikane) to surfaces, such as clouds floating the sky, and the style became more painterly. They also used inlays of various materials such as mother-of-pearl and precious metals. The use of lacquer as ornament also increased. At this time the Phoenix Hall in the Byodoin Temple was embellished with colourful representations of imaginary flowers, from floor to ceiling. Here, designs of hosoge karakusa and lotus flowers are painted in rhythmic sequences or in random patterns that appear to be almost symmetrical. These decorations are very colourful, applied in gradations of colour (ungen saishiki) that had already been seen in the Asoka period, lending the two-dimensional designs a sense of depth. Ishi-datami (tile patterns) were still very prevalent in the Heian period, but at the end of the Chinese Tang era official contacts between Japan and China ceased until the 15th century. So that decorative motifs with local character were developed in Japan. The patrons of art at that time were the aristocrats who lived in Kyoto, the capital, and the artists decorated practical items (tsukurimono), intended for the festivities of the cultural elite, with great elegance and finesse (furyu). It is apparent from these works that the nobility preferred naive motifs derived from nature, such as birds flying over a field. As a rule, these scenes embellish inlaid lacquer wares. Another popular design of the era was the wheels of a wagon floating amid waves, derived from the custom of soaking the wheels in water to prevent the wood from drying out. This motif often appeared on paper for writing poetry, for fans, or for copying sutras.     

 

The designers of the Heian period certainly loved painting creatures (butterflies, dragonflies, birds, hares) and plants (wisteria, pampas, maple, plum, cherry), as well as motifs from earlier times. The aristocracy were fascinated by the changing seasons of the year, and seasonal plants were used for decoration - chrysanthemum, akigusa (autumn flowers and foliage), reeds, willow fronds, bamboo or melons. Lions or phoenixes were painted inside medallions, and waves or misty effects were created with powdered silver or gold (sunagashi), rows of kikko (rows of hexagons like tortoise-shell), lozenges, and marbling effects were created by spraying ink onto wet paper (suminagashi). At the beginning of the 12th century, new motifs appeared - the tomoe (comma), miru (seaweed), and maple leaves (kaede). A modified form of the medallion (ban-e) was used mainly on textiles and furniture, incorporating a lion inside a circle, and was also the basis for family crests (see separate panel), developed later. Textiles with diagonal stripes were preferred to Chinese embroidery.

 

A new art movement arose in China during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), the artists and the educated elite wanting to depict truth (in Japanese: shin) in artistic creations. They adopted calligraphy and ink painting as means of personal expression, and the decorative arts declined in popularity. In the Chinese text "Abstract from the Xuanhe Period" (1120), a catalogue of art works from the Emperor Huizong's collection (Huizong: 1082-1135), there is the following note about Japanese screen paintings: "In Japan there are paintings, but we do not know the names of the artists who painted them. These works depict the landscape and natural scenes of their homeland. They use thick layers of pigment, and much use is made of gold and primary colours. They do not portray true reality, but are paintings full of colour, dazzling to the eye in their glowing beauty".

 

At the end of the 12th century, the political power of the aristocracy was superseded by the Japanese Army, and the seat of government was transferred to Kamakura in the east of the country. The emperor and his court remained in the Heian capital (today Kyoto), the centre of culture.

 

Decorative motifs hardly changed during the Kamakura era (1185-1392), but their style of expression was more characteristic of the samurai, who now became the patrons of art. The motifs were mainly naturalistic - clover flowering in the wild, a family of deer on the bank of a flowing river, tiny birds fluttering over an autumn landscape. Realistic and naturalistic detail expressed the transition from the refined taste of the court to the dynamic characteristics of military rule. The preferred style was yamato-e ("Japanese painting"), depicting local subjects in bold colours and emphasizing details concerned with the seasons of the year. Another Kamakura motif was ashide (calligraphy and reeds). Chinese characters were integrated into representations of reeds and water, embellishing decorative paper for writing poetry, or lacquer items. Chinese characters then began to appear as decorative motifs. The decorations usually included a poem or a verse from the poem on which the motif was based, written in Chinese characters, called uta-e (poem pictures). Such works had already appeared in the Heian period, and flourished in the Muromachi period.

 

By the Kamakura period, the Japanese artists were already employing three techniques for lacquer work, namely: gold and/or mother-of-pearl inlay, application of silver leaf, and mother-of-pearl inlay on black or gold lacquer. Mother-of Pearl inlay on black lacquer or on a gilded surface expressed the "cool, intellectual composition of the period. The decorative motifs are repeatedly seen, such as fans painted with seasonal views, or semi-random arrangements of butterflies. The metal accessories of the lacquer wares, e.g. the handles, are decorated with the same "cool composition" motifs, of which the chrysanthemum inside a suhama (rippling) frame is an example. In the Muromachi era (1392-1568) similar lacquer boxes were decorated with the fan motif, but less formally arranged.

 

The floral motifs of the Kamakura era included flowering cherry trees, karakusa of peonies and chrysanthemums with butterflies and waves, dragons, lions and tigers amid bamboo. Butterfly wings and fish with tomoe (two or three "commas" arranged in a circle) were usually designed as medallions, and whirlpools, plum blossom and cart wheels were also represented. The houses of the nobility had decorated reception rooms (zashiki kazari), in which Chinese scrolls with ink-paintings, and colourful Japanese screens in yamato-e style were displayed. Here the shogun would receive the emperor and other important guests.

 

At the beginning of the 15th century, trade with China recommenced. Ink drawings, ceramics, metal and lacquer wares from the Sung, Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, known in Japan as karamono (Chinese things) were imported and imitated by Japanese artists. The copies of ink paintings were very fine, the others were less successful than the original Chinese works. In the 15th century the military Ashikaga clan was displaying Chinese art works in their decorated reception hall that was designed as the western Paradise of Buddha Amida, as described above.

 

When Zen came to Japan in the Kamakura period, Japanese monks travelled regularly to China to learn about the religion, bringing back with them art works from the mainland. By the Muromachi era, the mercantile links between Japan and China were firmly established, so that the flow of such items to Japan increased. Articles in Yuan and Ming styles were acquired by the Japanese aristocracy or stored in the temples, inaccessible to ordinary people. Local artists had few opportunities to study the foreign motifs or Chinese decorative techniques like engraved lacquer or embroidery. Gradually, however, the influence of Chinese design began to predominate, particularly in the 16th century, with the encouragement of Yoshimasa, the 8th Shogun of Ashikaga. This trend is very evident in the carvings of red lacquer (cinnabar) that reached Japan in the Kamakura period, and hence is known as Kamakura-bori (Kamakura carving) or tsuishu. Japanese camellia and chrysanthemum motifs were also used. Gold inlay (chinkin) on carved lacquer surfaces derived from the Chinese technique, so that decorative motifs were both Chinese and Japanese.     

 

In the Muromachi period, the Yuan and Ming styles of lacquer decoration were naturalistic - pawlonia, oak, pine, willow, peony, tangerine and chrysanthemum, with meticulous attention to detail. On the covers of lacquer containers we find the trunk of a single tree, a flowering branch growing beside rocks or flowing water, part of the motif repeated inside the container. Frequently the background is formed of powdered gold (nashiji). The lack of perspective and proportion is a conspicuous element. In many cases, specific elements are enlarged in order to emphasize the subject of the motif. Apart from the traditional karakusa there are motifs such as plum blossom, pawlonia, wisteria, and chrysanthemum. The flowering karakusa motif of the Yuan-Ming era, originally decorating porcelain in underglaze blue, was used in Japan to embellish lacquer, textiles, metal, wood and ceramics. Hashide and uto-e were popular in the Muromachi era, especially on lacquer wares embellished with gold (maki-e). Uto-e, essentially an illustration to a poem, now included only a few key Chinese characters from the poem itself.

 

The second half of the 16th century was the golden age of decorative art in Japan. In the short Momoyama period (1568-1615), Japan was ruled by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). The castles and citadels built at this time of civil unrest had halls for official receptions, with sliding doors (fusuma) and folding screens (byobu), both offering surfaces for decoration. The artists' preference was for landscapes or flowering plants on a gold ground.

 

The collapse of an established society and the rise of a new culture towards the end of the civil war offered new interpretations of the classic decorative motifs, and the creation of others. The rich, elegant appearance of gold and silver lacquer applied to black surfaces was typical of the era. The preferred motifs were akigusa (autumn foliage), chrysanthemum, camomile, pampas grass, clover, morning glory, which also appeared on articles for women; pine, bamboo, clouds and mist, flowers or leaves floating on water, musical instruments, and floral medallions were also popular. The karakusa had almost completely disappeared, to be replaced by matsukawabishi (pine bark diamond), a zig-zag line like a lightning flash that divided a surface into two unequal areas, each embellished with a different motif. This appeared on lacquer wares, kimonos and ceramics, and was, perhaps, a development of the diagonal or straight line bisecting areas of the Muromachi period. Another motif characteristic of the Momoyama era, that lasted till the beginning of the 17th century, was the medallion like a family crest with formalized pawlonia and chrysanthemum flowers integrated into naturalistic scenes..

 

At this time, the Japanese began wearing the kosode - a kimono with short sleeves - as an outer garment, instead of (as formerly) an undergarment, offering opportunities for textile decoration. During the Onin War (1467-1477), weavers from the Kyoto area settled in Nishijin. The textiles they produced included shiny silk cloth (neriginu), a soft, silken weave (habutae), a simple weave with diagonal stripes (aya), and others. Very large quantities of cloth were produced and acquired by samurai of the lower ranks, and by ordinary people. The textiles were decorated by means of various techniques - metallic threads in the weave, tie dyeing (shibori), embroidery, hand-painting. Towards the end of the period robes were embellished with "Chinese embroidery" (kara-ori) that actually originated in Japan. This replaced the embroidery with gold and coloured threads brought from China in the Ming era for costumes for the Noh Theatre, and consisted of silk designs that were incorporated in the weave. By means of this technique they embellished the Noh costumes with geometric motifs and flowering karakusa, usually on a purple ground.     

 

With the first intimations of a popular culture in Japan, theatrical performances, festivals and other such events required special costumes for actors and audience alike. The doyennes of fashion and taste included the courtesans and women of the pleasure quarters in the big cities, and artists of the genre also began to design kimonos. The popular motifs were again the flowers and foliage representing the four seasons. Many motifs were derived from earlier designs, such as willow branches laden with snow, or water-fowl amid reeds. Patterns were created by tie-dyeing that looked like the dappling on a deer's hide (kanoko shibori) interspersed with decorative motifs - maple, pine, flowers, deer, accentuated with embroidery. Another favourite was the kikko-hanabishi - four-petalled diamond-shaped flowers framed by hexagons arranged in a tortoise-shell pattern. Here again we see a return of the popular motifs of the Momoyama and later periods - the karakusa with flowers of the Yuan-Ming era, in underglaze blue for decorating porcelain. A motif comprising  stylized chrysanthemums, wisteria, hollyhock, lotus and cherry-blossom banded by matsukawabishi, together with geometric designs in tsujigahana (bisected flowers) stitching was very popular. The katami-gawari (see below) decoration of different motifs on each side of the kimono, seen in the Heian era, became fashionable once more.

 

The tea ceremony was also inspiration for decorative motifs on ceramics. Shino and Oribe ceramics were created in Mino province in northern Nagoya. Both types of pottery were made by the same technique, but Oribe ceramics embody the taste of the warrior and famous tea master Furuta Oribe (1544-1615). As well as variants of the traditional motifs, this absolutely free style of decoration can be divided into the following categories: everyday objects - boats, fans, wheels, umbrellas, combs, arrows, bridges, tableware; geometric - kikko, diamond, cross, waves, fish scales, ishi-datami, interlocking circles; floral - plum, pampas, trees and foliage, chrysanthemum, lotus, melon, vine, clover, iris, karakusa. Landscapes and human figures also appear.

 

The designs are not standardized, however, and range from naive or realistic motifs to abstractions. Often the Oribe wares combine "half-and-half" (katami-gawari) patterns, in which one half of the surface is covered with irregular stripes while the other has asymmetrical circles in complementary colours; or one half is blank and the other filled with various designs; or one half is filled with flowers, and the other with geometric patterns. The result is a patchwork effect.

 

The tea vessels in the aesthetic style of tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), whose patron was Toyotmi Hideyoshi, are restrained, fashioned by hand. The raku bowls designed in this spirit convey a sense of the rough, organic clay, of simplicity (wabi).    

 

Trade with the Portuguese and Spaniards who reached the shores of Japan flourished in the Momoyama period. Christian missionaries built their church in Kyoto in 1577, and they were known as namban-ji. "Namban" (southern barbarians) was the epithet for foreigners from the south, and was also applied to the decorations on articles used for their religious ceremonies and on their clothing. Paintings were made of the foreigners walking their dogs, of their ships, and even of the elephants they brought with them, and these likenesses frequently verged on caricature. Other motifs in this context were rifles, tobacco pipes, playing cards, and maps of the world. Western fruits integrated into karakusa designs gave them an exotic flavour, and they were popular till the middle of the Edo era (Edo: 1615-1868).

 

After a long period of civil war, the seat of government was transferred to Edo (today Tokyo), which had developed at the beginning of the 17th century from a small village to one of the world's largest cities, with about one million inhabitants. Japan was a peaceful and prosperous land that had been cut off almost completely from the western world for more than two hundred years. The sense of security deriving from peace and stability was an aid to commerce, reinforcing the status of the merchants. Culture flourished in all strata of Japanese society, thanks to the new, wealthy bourgeoisie. The Kabuki theatre and the pleasure quarters, the woodblock prints, festivals, and other celebrations were all sources of inspiration for new decorative motifs.

 

Edo was the golden age of Japanese art, and decoration became more elaborate. Among the decorated accessories, as of the Kamakura era, was the metal handguard (tsuba) of the sword. By the end of the Momoyama period the appearance of the tsuba was already considered as important as its purpose. During the peaceful Edo period, great emphasis was placed on the design and decoration of the sword as indications of rank. At the beginning of this period, the power of the embellishments lay in their juxtaposition of naturalistic and formal designs. The new tradition of painting was known as ‘rimpa', of which the roots can be seen in the yamato-e of the Heian era. This was also when cotton textiles appeared with woven ikat patterns (in Japanese: kasuri), originating in India. For this technique some of the threads were dyed before weaving. The most prevalent were white patterns on a blue ground (kon-gasuri), usually geometric, or with designs of tortoises or cranes, symbols of longevity. The stencil technique, developed in the 17th century, enabled production of large quantities of decorated fabrics. The stencil is cut by hand from several layers of paper reinforced with persimmon juice. Printing is done after areas of cloth are blocked out with a paste of rice-starch or soya-bean to control the spread of the dye. The fabric is then rinsed to remove the starch, revealing white areas identical to those of the stencil.

 

The Taoist myths about the legendary island of Horai-san came to Japan from China far back in Japanese history. In the Heian era, the story was linked to the good-luck symbols, the crane, tortoise and pine tree. In the Kamakura period, the plum tree (shochikubai) was also included, as was bamboo in the Muromachi era. In the Edo period, some of these symbols were combined as decorative motifs to embellish clothing, furniture, and items for ceremonial use - pine, bamboo and plum, tortoise and crane, a crane in flight over or near to a pine branch, and others. New motifs, never previously considered suitable - fish, vegetables, insects, paper umbrellas, drums, bridges, everyday articles, even tools and combinations of such elements were also among the motifs employed in the Edo period. New motifs such as people employed in various tasks, or festival dancers, were very popular for decorating the clothing and utensils of merchants and ordinary folk alike.

 

Symbols with religious significance, used by the Japanese aristocracy throughout their history, were now adopted by ordinary people. The butterfly and the peony from the Nara era; the bamboo and sparrow, peony and lions from the Kamakura era, were all very popular during Edo, as were combinations of plants and animals such as squirrels and grapes, nightingales and plum blossom. There were also new motifs - hares and moon, a mouse pulling a rice-cake, carp leaping a waterfall. Religious motifs such as the Buddhist wheel of life (rinbo) were used to decorate everyday articles, as were subjects from classical literature like the 11th century "Tale of Genji", folklore and children's stories. Others were derived from Chinese motifs such as the Zen monks Kanzan and Jittoku of the Tang era.      

 

Rule reverted to the emperor at the end of Edo, but in spite of political and social unrest, the traditional decorative motifs continued to enrich Japanese life in the Meiji era (1867-1912). By the end of the 19th century, Japanese artifacts were being displayed at international exhibitions in the western world, and the freshness of the Japanese style enchanted the Europeans and the Americans. After Japan opened its gates to the West, the Japanese, in turn, were influenced by the industrial revolution, and a fascinating dialogue commenced, between the traditional Japanese motifs and those deriving from the western influence, that continues to this day. In all these periods, the Japanese artists bore in mind that their decorations were intended for practical articles. It is evident that they considered how to design the ornamentation so as to fulfil this purpose, and which technique to employ to obtain the best effect. They had no hesitation about the use of colour or about using particularly complex techniques.

 

To Family crests click here

 
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