Aspects of the Edo Period in Japanese Art

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The Edo Period (1603 – 1868) within Japan’s History presented the world with some of the most iconic expressions of nature, even influencing great artists from the West. Artists from the Edo Period were able to communicate incredible metaphors and commentaries through their presentation and from ancient times to present – Japanese have celebrated the beauty of seasons and particularly their inevitable evanescence. Spring Blossoms, autumn foliage, and winter moon continued to become focus points at the so called famous places (meisho) that sprang around Edo in response to the desire for seasonal viewing, which became a major form of recreation for urban commoners.

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‘Red and White Plum Blossoms’ by Ogata Korin perfectly encapsulates the expression and influences of the Edo period, with the underlying theme of nature. The two peice panel engulfs the viewer into the patterned river that flows between plum blossoms trees, Korin stylized composition allows the painting to engage mass elements of Japanese culture. ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ in true contrast not just in mediums but the social and spiritual aspects. The Woodblock print is one of the most famously recognised artworks from Japan. As the landscape creates movement with it whipped up storm in the foreground consumes scene, enticing ideas of nature in all its complex forms. The time of the Edo period was a geographical and social shift from ab inland culture (Kyoto) to a port culture (Edo) creating cultural and political change throughout the art world of japan.

‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by Katsushika Hokusai is timelessly recognizable, and is arguably the most iconic oriental artwork in History. The image that Hokusai presents the viewer with distills the immense power of the ocean, into a simple 2D image that is instantly mesmerizing. What appears to be another cresting wave within the centre of the artwork, is actually the snow-capped Mount Fuji which is the highest peak in Japan. In the context of the image, Mount Fuji is appeared to be dwarfed by the enormous wave which conveys the meaning of the “great power of nature and the insignificant power of humans”. The ability for one of the highest peaks in the Southern hemisphere to be shrunk compared to the body of water surrounding it is mastered by Hokusai. The spray from the wave appears to look like snow falling upon the cap of the mountain, creating a visual joke for the viewer. The eccentric composition of the artwork is a pure display of Hokusai’s ability to digest supposed ‘rational’ traditions of European artwork at the time and was able to make something far more exciting and dramatic.

In the harshly controlled feudal society governed for over 250 years by the descendants of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), creativity did not come from its leaders, a conservative military class, but from the two lower classes in the Confucian social hierarchy, the artisans and the merchants. By the late 1630s, contact with the outside world was cut off through official prohibition of foreigners and through this self-imposed imprisonment the Japanese were able to revive and refine traditions of the past. These ultimately transformed and re-meditated traditions sprouted the flourishing urban societies of Kyoto and Edo. The blue colour used in the artwork is imported and is known commonly in English as Prussian Blue or Berlin Blue. This displays the way Japan was connected to China and the world beyond through trade and thus “the Great Wave has been reproduced and adapted more widely, in more parts of the world, than any other non-Western artwork”. Through Hokusai’s use of colour and imagery he was able to create an immensely powerful and informative artwork with “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” providing the viewer with great insight to political contexts within Japan’s Edo Period.

During the Edo Period painters and artisans formed images of visual beauty in response to seasonal themes and poetic inspiration, created meditations on the fleeting seasons of life, and through them expressed essential truths about the nature of human experience.

‘Red and White Plum Blossoms’ by Ogata Kôrin (18th Century) is able to transform a very simple and delicate landscape into and heavenly dreamlike image. The image depicts merely two trees on either side of a small river painted unto a pair of folding screens. Thus, through the pair of folding screens Kôrin is able to create a dual perspective, presenting the viewer with both an abstract and realistic view at the same time using and artstyle known as ‘Rinpa’. This artstyle had a profound impact upon modernism in the West and it is an art style associated with the epitome of Japanese art. Kôrin was able to utilise the techniques of the movement through his use of simplifying the images to their bare essentials and then dramaised through the use of form, colours and texture. Further Kôrin utilises unconventional ink painting methods through dilute washes of colour blended whilst wet to create forms and structures without visible and distinct outlines. Sensitivity of the seasonal change is an important part of Shinto, Japan’s native belief system. Seasonal flowers and plants such as blossoms, irises and morning glories became the entire focus of painting compositions. Through Kôrin’s use of both techniques (Rinpa) and imagery he is able to present the viewer with dream like landscapes and images.

During the early stages of the Edo period, especially by the late 1630s, contact with the outside world was cut off with the official prohibition of foreigners however Japan was able to make contact through trade with fellow countries. Hokusai’s artwork the ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa’ reflects many ideals of of Japan during the Edo period. Hokusai’s use of imagery and perspective gives the viewer a deeper meaning into the class system that Japan held at the time where a large majority of creativity came from the artisans and merchants of the lower classes of society. Thus, through the powerful imagery that Hokusai utilises with the gigantic crashing waves, he is able to create a metaphor as water being a powerful and connected mechanism used by the Japanese for multiple facets of life. Further his use of depicting workers upon the small rafts venturing through the sea is representative of the structure of society at the time, with the water representing the conservative military class leaders that ruled Japan at the time controlling over the loyal fisherman workers. On the contrary, Kôrin’s work ‘Red and White Plum Blossoms’ is extremely representative of the class system and the Hierarchies love and appraisal for ‘fine art’. Contextually Kôrin came from a much different background from that of Hokusai’s as Kôrin had access too a vast array of materials and mediums as his family was very wealthy due to its position as one of Kyoto’s most prominent and notable producers of fine textiles. This allowed Kôrin to provide the viewer with “experimentations with the effects of style, materials, and artistic media”. On the contrary Hokusai came from a much more humble upbringing where at 14 he began working as an apprentice wood-carver until the age of 18. Further in the early stages of Hokusai’s career he went under several different aliases allowing to fly under the radar compared to the heritage that Kôrin’s name held. In a socio-political context this provides the viewer with a deep level of meaning in which Hokusai’s ukiyo-e woodblock carvings would not have been as highly valued in society compared to that of the works of Kôrin.

However to the greater world Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa’ epitomises and has become arguably the most iconic Japanese artwork of all time. The Edo period was rich with some of the most iconic expressions of nature, while complex metaphors in the natural forms. Both artworks are true presentations of the natural elements of the country of Japan and the social structures of its society, encapsulating all aspects of the Edo Period.

‘The Great Wave Off Kanagawa’ enhances the eccentric composition of the artwork which is a pure display of Hokusai’s ability to digest supposed ‘rational’ traditions of European. The mesmerising Blue known in English as prussian blue used in the print also shows the contact Housaki had with the trade of China, in the tense political climate at the time. ‘Red and White Plum Blossoms’ presents both abstract and realistic view of the natural landscape using the artstyle ‘Rinpa’. Kôrins ability, through the use of ‘Rinpa’, allows him to simplify images to its bare essentials, this is contrasted to Hokusai’s ability of creating mesmerising and detailed images like “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” which prevents the viewer with an extremely powerful and confronting image. Thus, both artists presentation and communication differs immensely and this is due to a multitude of reasons – especially that of political and social contexts within the Edo Period.

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