UCR Rock Garden at Ryoan Ji The Imperfect Incomplete & Transient Qualities Essay

Question Description

I’m working on a art writing question and need a sample draft to help me study.

The influence of Shinto and Buddhism, especially Zen, on Japanese art can often be seen in the interest in the imperfect, the incomplete, and the transient (impermanent). Choose ONE of the works of art listed below and analyze how these qualities are reflected in the work. Consider both content and style. 

Hungry Tigress panel from the Tamamushi Shrine, Asuka, c. 650
Scene from the “Minori” (“The Rites”) chapter of The Tale of Genji, Heian, 12th century
Rock Garden at Ryoan-ji, Kyoto, Muromachi, c. 1480
Sen no Rikyu, Taian Tea House, Kyoto, Momoyama, 1582
Suzuki Harunobu, Flowers of Beauty in the Floating World, Edo, 1769
Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, Edo, 1831
Katsushika Oi, Yoshiwara at Night, Edo, c. 1850s

Each of these works reflects imperfection, incompleteness, and transience to differing degrees so it is ok if your essay focuses more on one quality than the others. 

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Bright Dark Blues Grays Night
Kamakura Period
Whereas the aristocracy had dominated political life during the Nara and Heian
periods and infused their values into the art of the time, the Kamakura period
was dominated by the warrior class, the samurai. In many ways, they fashioned
their cultural and social lives as the new elite after the old aristocracy, but their
values, which often differed from those of the aristocracy, brought about
changes in the appearance of art during this time.
As we saw in the last lesson, the Heian period aristocrats favored art that
communicated sophisticated sentiment in restrained and often highly symbolic
ways. Consider the example we examined from the Tale of Genji, which
depicted a deeply sad and moving subject without any of the main characters
outwardly revealing their emotions. This is reflective of the Heian elites
themselves, who valued emotional restraint as a sign of self control and also
considered sensitivity to beauty and subtle emotion to be a sign of refinement.
During the Heian period, many aristocrats lived in mansions in the capital city
of Kyoto, where they were well placed to socialize with other aristocrats and to
vie for favor and power. However the source of their incomes, and therefore a
major source of power, actually came from their landholdings in the
countryside, which was agricultural land worked by peasants. It was the food
produced on this land that was the source of the wealth which enabled the
lavish lifestyles of the aristocracy. While aristocrats typically maintained homes
in both the capital and on their own land in the countryside, they tended to
favor spending time in the capital for the reasons mentioned above. It became
fairly standard to delegate the day to day running of countryside land and the
maintenance of order to warriors, some of whom were lesser members of the
aristocracy and some of whom originally came from the commoner class. Over
time, a distinct warrior class developed, the samurai, whose rising power in the
countryside eventually came to supplant that of the old aristocratic
The transition from the Heian Period into the Kamakura Period is marked by a
shift in power from the old aristocracy to the samurai class and the
establishment of the Shogunate, or military dictatorship under the Shogun. This
did not mean that the old aristocracy disappeared, but they became
increasingly irrelevant as they continued their refined cultural pursuits in Kyoto,
divorced from the mechanisms of real political power. The emperor was also
relegated to the sidelines. He maintained his authority as a figurehead because
his status as a descendent of the sun goddess was undisputed, but he most
often acted as a pawn of the most powerful members of the samurai class, the
daimyo (lords) and the shogun, who used the authority of the emperor to
legitimize their own newfound power.
Another way for the samurai class to establish themselves as legitimate elites
was through imitating the cultural practices of the old elite – namely through art
patronage, patronage of religious institutions, and cultivation of the self
through study and the practice of the arts. However, their values and beliefs
were not completely in line with the old aristocracy, and this is reflected in the
art they patronized and produced.
Keep the Genji Scrolls in mind as you look at the painting below. Click the link
underneath the detail to view the whole scroll. What immediately impresses
you about the differences between the Heian era work and the Kamakura era
work? Are there any stylistic aspects that are constant in both paintings?
Heiji Monogatari Emaki (Tale of the Heiji Scrolls), Kamakura period, late 13th century,
handscroll, ink and colors on paper (161⁄4 × 27511⁄16″)
(view full scroll here)
You probably immediately noticed that this painting is far more dynamic than
the Heian era scroll. Whereas the Tale of Genji scrolls show aristocratic figures
slowly and deliberately playing out a courtly drama, the Tale of the Heiji scrolls
feature warriors, aristocrats, servants, and horses all in a tumult of frantic
activity. The flames from the burning palace add another dynamic element to
the painting. Emotions are freely expressed here rather than restrained or
presented through symbols.
However, notice that they both feature a few distinct stylistic similarities, such
as the oblique aerial view and the use of flat colors.
Watch the video below for a brief discussion of the subject matter of this
painting and the distinctive way it has been presented.
Buddhist Art
“The Hell of Dissections” from the Jigoku zoshi (Hell Scrolls), Kamakura period, late 12th
century, handscroll, ink and color on paper (101⁄4 × 351⁄2″)
For your DB post from the last lesson, you looked at a detail from the Scroll of
the Hungry Ghosts, which was an example of religious art meant to influence
the viewer by evoking fear. It threatened the viewer with the possibility of
becoming a Hungry Ghost and thereby encouraged them to improve
themselves in order to avoid that fate.
The work above takes a similar tactic, although its audience appears to be
more specific. The scroll focuses on a series of Buddhist hells. Unlike hungry
ghosts, who, unseen by humans, inhabit the human world, the figures being
tormented above have found themselves reborn in one of the many Buddhist
hells, each of which is tailored to the amount of negative karma its inhabitants
have accrued. We should take note that this is not like the eternal hell of some
religious traditions – that would not fit with the notion of an endless cycle of
rebirth, which is fundamental to Buddhist belief. Instead, when one is reborn in
hell, it is simply another life to live, and eventually that life will end and the
being will be reborn again, maybe as a being in our world, maybe in another
hell, or elsewhere. However, the belief is that a lifetime in hell is often so long
that it can feel like an eternity.
The detail shown above depicts the ‘Hell of Dissections.’ Take a moment to
examine it and try to take note of the commonalities between the people being
tormented here.
Notice that they all have shaven heads, indicating that they are monks. This is
a hell devoted to monks who have committed murder. This may seem like a
weirdly niche hell, but actually this painting is very much reflective of the time
in which it was made. As we saw during the Nara period, Buddhist temples and
monasteries in Japan often had political ties, and during the centuries of
military domination that we’re discussing in this lesson, certain monasteries
decided to back certain warlords and also got in on the fighting, meaning there
were monks who had killed in battle. This means that there is a somewhat
political, or at least worldly, statement being made through this work – the artist
(or patron) appears to be expressing the view that monks should stay away
from battle and, by extension, away from politics and earthly power.
The work communicates the idea that the punishments that await the monks
who do kill are truly horrific. They are all stripped naked (a form of humiliation
that communicates their vulnerability rather than a celebration of the human
body), and those not currently being tormented cluster together pathetically
and anticipate what will happen to them. As both we and the monks in the
painting can see, demons are carving up monks with sadistic pleasure. If we
look closely, we can see a decapitated head on one of the tables, its eyes open
and its brows furrowed in pain, conveying that in this hell, the monks remain
alive and conscious as their bodies are cut up. While the monks appear fragile
in their humanness, the demons are grotesque caricatures of the human form
with exaggerated muscles and facial features. The accompanying text tells us
that when the work of cutting up the monks has been completed, a warden
says ‘alive’ and the monks bodies are restored to their complete forms and the
torment begins all over again.
The Descent of Amida Buddha and Twenty-Five Bodhisattvas, Kamakura period, 13th century,
hanging scroll, colors and gold on silk (4’91⁄4″ × 5’11⁄2″)
In stark contrast to the previous work, the hanging scroll shown here is a
Buddhist work of art that is more aspirational and attempts to sway the viewer
towards good action through the promise of redemption. This is a
representation of a popular subject in Pure Land Buddhism, known as the
raigo, or welcoming descent, when Amida Buddha and attendant bodhisattvas
descend from the Pure Land to accompany a newly deceased believer to
Paradise is symbolized by the small representation of a temple in the upper
right corner, and if you examine it closely, it is reminiscent of the Phoenix Hall
at Byodo-in, which was featured in the last lesson’s assignment.
Zen Buddhism
While Zen Buddhism is closely associated with Japan in the popular
consciousness, we have actually already come across this form of Buddhism
under its Chinese name, Chan. This is a form of Buddhism that rejects the idea
of attaining enlightenment through devotion to external beings, such as
buddhas and bodhisattvas. It also rejects the notion, fundamental to Pure Land
Buddhism, that enlightenment is unattainable in this lifetime. Rather, to Zen
Buddhists, enlightenment is something to be sought from within through
meditation and the contemplation of koans. Koans are questions which prompt
the person contemplating them to break free of the constraints of rigid
rationality, which Zen Buddhists consider to be an illusion.
Zen’s emphasis on rigorous self-discipline appealed to the extremely
disciplined samurai class, and its emphasis on simplicity had an important
impact on Japanese aesthetics.
Rock Garden, Ryoan-ji, Kyoto, Muromachi period, c. 1480 (current garden design likely dates
from around 1650) (29 × 75′)
One thing that has come to be closely associated with Zen in the popular
imagination is the Zen dry garden. Zen gardens have now been set up around
the world, and miniature zen gardens complete with tiny rakes are sold at
Barnes and Noble and Amazon and commonly found on coffee tables and
office desks in the US.
In the West, Zen gardens, large and small, are often advertised as ways to
relieve stress and anxiety. But how are their prototypes found at Zen temples
used, and how do they fit into religious practice?
There is no single way to explain or interpret a Zen dry garden. Like a koan, it is
meant to be contemplated and considered abstractly, and ideally to help the
thinker to transcend the limitations of logic. The rock garden at Ryoan-ji in the
photograph above, is the most famous example of a Zen dry garden. As you
can see in the image, the pebbles have been meticulously raked to form
straight regimented lines. This must be done frequently and the physical labor
of raking can serve as a meditative practice. Aside from when the garden is
being raked, this is not a space that people are meant to move through.
Instead it is one that is meant to be viewed and contemplated from the outside,
and typically one would view it from a viewing platform. Zen dry gardens are
often compared to monochrome landscape paintings in the Chinese and
Japanese traditions. Among the many symbolic interpretations of the rocks
and pebbles that make up the garden, is the idea that they represent islands
(rocks) emerging from the ocean (pebbles), mountain peaks (rocks) poking
through clouds (pebbles), or simply mountains (rocks) in a broader landscape
(pebbles). In contrast to more traditional East Asian gardens, which are meant
to be moved through and experienced in pieces, the Zen dry garden is more
remote and abstract, meant to be viewed in its entirety from outside it.
Momoyama Period
The periods discussed in this lecture were ones of alternating stability and
instability as various warlords sought to increase their power. The Momoyama
period (1573-1615) witnessed almost constant civil war as a series of daimyo
vied for power in hopes of becoming the next shogun. Despite the instability
and the fact that it was a relatively brief era in Japanese history, a great
number of important works were produced during this time.
Interior Design
This was a period of castle building, and these residences for daimyo were
designed to be both elegant and defensible. Even in the houses of the very
well-off, traditional Japanese rooms were relatively simple and sparsely
furnished. Instead of rooms with functions clearly determined by the furniture
placed in them (such as a dining room with a table and chairs, or a study with a
desk and bookshelves, or even a bedroom defined by a bed), Japanese rooms
were typically multi-purpose spaces. They had tatami mat floors on which
futon mattresses could be laid out for sleeping at night and put away during
the day, and low portable tables could likewise be set out when necessary and
put away when not. While some walls were permanent fixtures, other ‘walls’
were actually sliding semi-translucent paper doors called shoji or sliding
painted paper doors called fusuma. Shoji and fusuma could even be
completely removed to allow adjoining rooms to become one large
room, enabling the spaces to go from relatively enclosed to open and airy.
Another way of partitioning spaces in these rooms was by using byobu, or
folding screens. These were commonly painted and served as status symbols.
Hasegawa Tohaku, Pine Forest, Momoyama period, late 16th century, one of a pair of sixpanel screens; ink on paper (5’13⁄8″ × 11’8″)
The painting above is a masterful representation of trees in the mist. Hasagawa
Tohaku’s work was influenced by Zen thought and Zen artists, and I like to
think of this painting as the same scene that was depicted in the Chinese Chan
Buddhist monk Fachang Muqi’s Evening Bell from Mist-Shrouded Temple but
seen from a different perspective. Rather than presenting us with a view of a
mist-shrouded forest from a distance, we are placed on the ground inside the
forest. We become the walker, struggling to make out the trees in the fog. It is
easy to forget that this is a painting and that the fog will never shift to reveal
more than what is currently visible.
Kano Naizen, Arrival of the Portuguese, Momoyama period, 1593, two panels from a six-panel
screen; color and gold leaf on paper (5’1″ × 11’107⁄8″)
While the restrained and rustic aesthetics of Zen and the tea ceremony
represent one major strain of Japanese artistic preferences, another strain
consciously revived the more colorful and decorative aesthetics of the Heian
period. Often a single residence (or even a single work) would combine
elements of both of these styles.
Pine Forest is a restrained monochromatic example of a byobu, but colorful
and exuberant byobu featuring flat expanses of gold leaf were also popular.
The work above is an example of this kind, although not exactly a typical one.
I’ve included it because it documents the presence of Westerners in Japan at
this time in history and the Japanese perspective on them. Europeans in Japan
were largely interested in trade and gaining converts to Christianity, and while
interactions between Japanese and Europeans could at times become tense,
the relationship was often characterized by mutual fascination. This is apparent
from looking at the byobu above, which depicts the arrival of a foreign ship and
presents it as exotic. The artist has carefully replicated the distinctive details of
European dress and the features of the European merchants and crew
members, as well as the Africans, some of whom were probably slaves while
others served as crew members. Certain details, which the Japanese artist
likely found particularly strange, have been exaggerated, such as the
ridiculously voluminous pantaloons. On the ship, members of the crew swing
ludicrously from the rigging like acrobats in the circus. This fascination with the
workings of the ship probably reflect the fact that Japan was a culture without
much experience of long distance sea faring.
However, the European presence in Japan came to an abrupt end as the
Momoyama period gave way to the Edo period and Japan entered an era of
The Edo Period
As the tumultuous Momoyama period drew to a close, a single daimyo,
Tokugawa Ieyasu, established himself as Japan’s dominant warlord and took
up the title of shogun. He set up his capital in Edo, the city that today is known
as Tokyo, and a period of peace and economic prosperity began. During the
Edo period, as this era is called, a policy of isolation was established and
maintained. Foreigners were expelled from the country, Christianity was
outlawed, Japanese were forbidden from traveling abroad, and foreign
products like guns were regulated to the point that they fell out of use. A small
amount of highly regulated trade was allowed with Korea, China, and the Dutch
Netherlands, but the movement of traders from these countries was strictly
While the era was peaceful, this was largely because Tokugawa Ieyasu and his
descendants strictly regulated the movement of people within Japan, in
particular the daimyo, in an attempt to ensure that none of them would be able
to seriously challenge Tokugawa authority. They put in place a system
called sankin kotai or ‘alternate attendance’, which stipulated that daimyo
could not live full time on their own lands and were required to alternate
between living in Edo and on their own lands. Furthermore, the daimyo were
required to leave their wives and children in Edo, meaning they served
effectively as hostages, ensuring that the daimyo would not attempt to raise an
army to challenge the shogun. The sankin kotai was thus an important way for
the shogun to assert his authority over the daimyo. It also served as a major
financial drain for the daimyo, who had to maintain extravagant houses both in
the capital and at home and who traveled between them in elaborate and
expensive processions in an attempt to show off to and compete with other
daimyo. Furthermore, as the Tokugawa shogunate was able to maintain peace,
the samurai class, whose identity was built around their status as warriors,
were no longer able to increase their wealth or status through warfare. Over
time they shifted into more bureaucratic roles, often becoming increasingly
In short, the Edo period is associated with the decline of the samurai class, but
it also saw the rise of the chonin, or townspeople. The peace and stability of
the country allowed for increased consumption, which especially benefitted
merchants, some of whom became extremely wealthy, surpassing members of
the aristocratic and samurai classes above them.
With the shogun in charge, the merchants could not become a truly dominant
class politically or culturally during the Edo period. Nevertheless, like the
samurai before them, wealthy merchants looked to the practices of the old
elites to legitimize their own status, and they thus participated in tea
ceremonies, became art patrons, and practiced cultural pursuits such as
calligraphy and poetry. Many of the objects produced by and for these three
most privileged classes – the aristocracy, the samurai, and the merchants continued in the same tradition as those produced during the Momoyama
period. Many of these objects – kimono, byobu, tea bowls, etc. – are covered in
your textbook, but in this lecture, we will be focusing on the art that the Edo
period is perhaps most famous for, the kind of art that reached a broad
The Floating World
One of the most important ideas to take away from this lesson is the notion of
the ‘floating world.’ This was originally a Buddhist concept referring to the
transient world of fleeting pleasures, the things that are impermanent and thus
illusions to be seen past. However, as we’ve already seen in the paintings and
poems of earlier eras, Japanese often found special beauty in things that were
impermanent because of their impermanence. The beauty of a flower, a
beautiful evening, or a romantic tryst could be enhanced by the knowledge that
it wouldn’t last – the joy of experiencing it in the moment was made more
poignant by the sadness that would attend its passing. In the Edo period, the
term ‘floating world’ came to refer to the pleasure districts of Japanese urban
centers, where visitors could find kabuki theaters, tea houses, brothels, and
other places of entertainment. The sophisticated Buddhist connotations of the
the beauty of impermanence were lost on many of the patrons of the floating
world, which included a broad range of people, including samurai, merchants,
and other townspeople.
Along with the various forms of popular entertainment, popular art was
produced for the pleasure districts as well. These are known as Ukiyo-e, or
‘pictures of the floating world’, and while these were sometimes painted, most
famously Ukiyo-e came in the form of woodblock prints. As we saw in the case
of China, woodblock prints enabled the democratization of visual culture
because they could be cheaply and relatively easily produced and a single set
of woodblocks could produce many virtually identical copies. During the Edo
period, a woodblock print of average quality would cost about the same price
as a bowl of noodles.
Whereas the patrons of much of the art we’ve looked at previously were
members of the highly educated classes, the art of the floating world was
intended for a broader audience and thus had to be easily understood and
appreciated by people without specialized knowledge of art or high culture.
Nevertheless, some of the visual elements and themes will be familiar.
Suzuki Harunobu, The Flowers of Beauty in the Floating World: Motoura and Yaezakura of the
Minami Yamsakiya, Edo period, 1769, polychrome woodblock print on paper (111⁄2 × 83⁄8′′)
The woodblock print shown above belongs to one of the most popular genres
of ukiyo-e, pictures of beautiful women. It shows one young women and a girl,
apparently at leisure, watching boats come into the harbor. Their features are
stylized, rather than naturalistic, and the emphasis is on the flowing, curving
lines that make up their bodies and the fabrics which drape sensuously around
them. One revealing feature of Motoura’s clothing is the fact that her obi (the
wide sash) is tied loosely at the front. A ‘properly’ tied obi, like Yaezakura’s is
elaborately tied in the back and requires the help of someone else to do it well.
Motoura’s obi is a sign of her profession: courtesan, or higher-end sex worker
(not to be confused with geisha, who were not considered sex workers!) But
notice that this does not come with the moralizing connotations that we would
expect in a European representation of a prostitute – she is not meant to look
like a gaudy and debased ‘fallen’ woman, but instead looks sophisticated and
elegantly sensual. The women of the floating world typically came from
impoverished families who sold them into indentured servitude in the pleasure
quarters. For many who became geisha or high end courtesans, this was seen
as a major improvement to their quality of life and they were considered lucky
(though certainly not all of them personally felt this way!) Many other women,
however, ended up being sold to the cheaper brothels and lived much harsher
lives than those in the more elevated floating world positions. It is noteworthy
that these women are almost entirely absent from the pictures of the floating
In the print above, Yaezakura, the girl who accompanies Motoura is both an
attendant and an apprentice. Although her obi indicates that she is not yet a
practicing courtesan, she is learning the arts of charm and beauty from her
mentor. While the print seems to focus on the act of looking, as the two
women gaze out towards the boats, it is actually more about being seen. We
as the viewer gaze upon them, consuming their beauty, just as the men down
below in the boats and those presumably out of frame also gaze upon them.
Motoura, who is more experienced, is aware of this as to have her body seen
and consumed is her lot in life, and she poses sensuously in response to the
unseen eyes upon her. Both the long pipe and the telescope have phallic
connotations and are meant to titillate the viewer.
However, despite the broader nature of the subject matter and medium, we
see some traditional artistic elements in the work, such as the very distinctive
oblique aerial viewpoint that is a hallmark of Japanese paintings. Furthermore,
the print’s title and the inclusion of the potted flowers on the bench help to tie
this work in with Japanese cultural traditions which celebrated the beauty of
impermanence. They draw attention to the fleeting nature of beauty and
pleasure in the pleasure districts and add a bittersweet note to the work.
Elegant and beautiful Motoura in her sumptuous clothing may be at the height
of her career now, but the flowers, the title, and even the young courtesan in
training, Yaezakura, are reminders that her beauty will fade. Just as the
glorious beauty of a flower in full bloom is made even more beautiful by the
knowledge that it cannot last, Motoura’s beauty is given depth by its
Like the woodblock print, the popularity of kabuki theater during the Edo
period was another sign of the increasing democratization of culture. Noh
theater, which was covered in your textbook reading for the last lesson, was
popular among Japanese elites because they had the education and cultural
background to understand and appreciate them. Noh theater was hypnotically
slow and ritualized and relied on signs and symbols to convey ideas and
emotions that not everyone had the ability to ‘read.’ Many modern audiences,
regardless of their level of education, find them boring and difficult to
understand because they are divorced from the cultural contexts in which noh
plays were developed. Kabuki on the other hand, was entertainment for the
masses. It featured dramatic storylines based on relatable emotions and
stylized over the top acting that was much more easily understood than noh
Utagawa Toyokuni I, Interior of a Kabuki Theater, Edo period, ca. 1800, colored woodblock
print (15 × 291⁄2″)
One of the most popular subjects of ukiyo-e was kabuki theatre, from works
like the one above, which shows a play in progress, to portraits of individual
actors. Woodblock prints were often sold outside the theaters and were
purchased as cheap souvenirs by the people who saw the plays. By viewing
the print above, we can get a sense of the atmosphere of kabuki performances
during their heyday. These were not performances watched by silent rows of
viewers, but were instead noisy and boisterous events. The audience
surrounded the stage on three sides and the performance space included a
catwalk so that actors could enter from the back of the theater, bringing the
performance into the audience space. Vendors made their way between the
audience members selling meals and snacks, and audience members often
loudly quoted their favorite lines along with the actors on the stage.
One thing to note about this work is that while it is clearly Japanese in style, a
distinctly western artistic element is prominently featured – linear perspective.
Instead of the more Japanese oblique aerial viewpoint, we as the viewer see
the stage from straight on. The vanishing point appears to be right at the
center of the stage, and the orthogonals all appear to lead towards it.
The Meiji Period
After the American Commodore Matthew Perry used ‘gunboat diplomacy’ to
open Japan to the outside world in 1853-4, foreign influence flooded in and
contributed to enormous institutional and cultural changes in Japan. One of
these changes was the end of the bakufu, or shogunate, and the restoration of
the emperor as the ultimate power in Japan. This is known as the Meiji
You may have noticed that outside erotica the nude figure does not appear
much in Japanese visual culture (or East Asian art more broadly). Nudity of
course made perfect sense in erotica but it was not considered to be an
appropriate subject for what we might call ‘high art.’ This began to change as
Japanese artists encountered Western art, which, especially in the 19th
century, was full of nudity. In Western art, the study and naturalistic
representation of the human form was considered a crucial element of
becoming a skilled artist.
Kuroda Seiki, Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment, Meiji period, c. 1897, oil on canvas, each 711⁄8 ×
The painting above is by the Japanese painter, Kuroda Seiki, who trained in
Paris and was instrumental in promoting yoga, or western-style painting, in
Japan. Notice how he has incorporated elements of both Japanese and
Western art styles here. While the naturalistically rendered nudes draw upon
Western traditions, the model is Asian and her placement against a flat gold
background is reminiscent of the gold byobu (folding screens) which appeared
in wealthy Japanese homes. The division of the painting into three panels
suggests both the Japanese byobu and the Western triptych, a common
format for Christian altarpieces in Europe. Initially, Japanese audiences found
this work shocking because it was a work purporting to be high art that
featured a nude, a subject that belonged only in erotica in the Japanese
tradition. However, this work was very well received in Europe.
European style art certainly had a strong influence on Japanese art, but
likewise, Japanese art had an enormous impact on European, especially
French, art. Many of the late 19th century artists that are most highly regarded
today – Van Gogh, Degas, and Whistler, among many others – admired
Japanese art and incorporated elements of Japanese style, such as the
oblique aerial viewpoint, into their own works.
20th Century Japan
Japan in the twentieth century underwent multiple transformations. Beginning
in the late nineteenth century, the world witnessed Japan’s rising militarism
and its ascent as the new Asian superpower. Like many European nations,
Japan sought to become an imperialist power, and it annexed first Taiwan and
later Korea, where the colonial government actively sought to suppress Korean
culture and identity.
During the Second World War, Japan continued its expansion, and in many
places, soldiers committed heinous war crimes in the name of the emperor and
the Japanese Empire. After suffering the devastation and enormous loss of life
caused by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (not
to mention the countless non-atomic bombs that rained down on Tokyo after
the US entered the war), Japan endured a humiliating and painful defeat. The
nation’s surrender was followed by seven years of Allied occupation, economic
hardship, and then remarkable economic recovery. Today of course, Japan is
closely associated with, among many other things, cutting edge technology.
Yanagi Yukinori, Hinomaru Illumination (Amaterasu and Haniwa), 1993, neon, neon transformer,
programming circuit, painted steel, and haniwa figures; each haniwa figure approximately 39″
Yanagi Yukinori’s installation, Hinomaru Illumination, appears to address
several of the issues discussed above. Its individual elements should be
familiar. It features haniwa lined up in regimented rows like soldiers, all facing
the hinomaru, or Japanese flag, made up of neon lights. We have seen that
haniwa act as a reference to Japan’s ancient history (see the mascot of the
Tokyo National Museum below!) and are strongly associated with Japan’s
cultural identity. The flag’s central image is a simplified representation of the
rising sun and is thus also a representation of Amaterasu, the sun goddess and
great ancestor of the imperial family.

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Shinto and Buddhism

the Transient Qualities

the Incomplete Qualities

The Imperfect Qualities

the rock garden at ryoanji kyoto

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Lee Y.
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