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Art: Inevitable Part of History, Japanese Art from Prehistoric(1000BCE) to Meiji(1868AD).

Art was inevitable from history. From the Prehistoric Period to the Meiji Period, Japanese art pieces were always influenced by its internal political situation as well as other external cultures and religions. This article talked about how did Japanese artists incorporate cultural, political, and religious contexts of the belonged time period into their productions of art pieces through both explicit and implicit perspectives.

Religiously, two main practices in Japan were Buddhism and Zen. During the Nara period, Emperor Shomu used Buddhism to establish a state identity hence he approached a Chinese monk named Ganjin and invited him to help and restore discipline in the Buddhist ranks in Japan. Technically, the sculpture Monk Ganjin designed in the 8th Century Nara period had utilized dry lacquer technique, unique to Japan, which built many layers with lacquer. The depiction of the monk was detailed comparing to Prehistoric Japan because the sculpture showcased naturalistic elements such as his blind eyes as well as a mouth with kindness. This combination of expressiveness and realism, as a result, had conveyed emotions as well as giving certain human qualities to the monk. Conceptually, since Buddhism believed that “the end to suffering is to suppress desire and attachment” hence this sculpture had addressed this belief well by conducting a sense of peace and harmony through the monk’s mediation-like gesture. The figure was also a real person in life, which provided familiarity to audiences. Similar to the Monk Ganjin, the Zen Master sculpture was designed in the 15th Century during the Muromachi period. It also showcased similar principles as the Monk Ganjin. Both the Monk Ganjin and the Zen Master sculptures had approached Japan’s religious beliefs during their each belonged time periods through technique and conceptual perspectives.

Politically, paintings during the Kamakura period had reflected on the political situations at the time. During the Kamakura period, provinces that against the overly centralized government were raised. Instead of the imperial families, shoguns started to emerge and soon became the ruling class in Japan. The Portrait of Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo was painted in the late 12th Century, after when shogun came to power, by Takanobu. Technically, the shogun’s facial features were not idealized but regular. It was hard to ignore that his shoulders were wide and rigid and his cloth contained sharp folds. Additionally, the background was absolutely empty. Implicitly, the intention behind these details was to show male power and to demonstrate military aesthetics. Similar to the portrait, The Tales of Heiji: Burning of the Palace painted in the 12th Century during the Kamakura period addressed the same political message. In the picture, a group of people managed to fight against the imperial ruler. Explicitly, the theme was associated with war, which was considered as the prime of male painting. It suggested and corresponded to the political fact that the imperial government was abolished by military shogun rulers. Therefore, these works demonstrated that politics was a common theme in many art pieces. Artists tended to reflect on the political situation during the time period through explicit and implicit depictions.

Last but not least, the exchange of cultures was originated from earlier Silk Road influences but extended to the Meiji period. Started in the late 19th Century, Japan restored imperial rule and abolished military dictatorship. Most importantly, foreigners were no longer banned from entering the country, which had largely and directly encouraged cultural exchanges. Kuroda Seiki painted Maiko Girl in the late 19th Century. Notably, the artist painted in oil paints on canvas, which was a typical material for Western paintings. Explicitly, the painting was painted in a realistic style and the two figures were pretty three-dimensional comparing to previous paintings. Implicitly, foreign ideas and thoughts also had certain influences on contents. The painting Foreigners Showing Affection for Children in the late 19th Century during the Meiji period was indeed a government-sponsored painting. It showcased how foreign women played their roles in families. The government paid for this painting to actually convey a message to the public that women in western countries were also serving as housewives and hence Japanese women should also and always remember their social status. No radical behaviors should be allowed. There were also other paintings that were aimed at understanding the technological and scientific advancement of the West. Therefore, cultural exchange during the Meiji period indeed had a considerable influence on technique, material, and theme both explicitly and implicitly.

To conclude, Japanese artists have incorporated religious, political, and cultural contexts of the belonged time period into their productions of art pieces. Material, technique, and themes had all embodied with these contextual influences. These influences could however be both explicit and implicit in terms of methodology, but in the end, this had proved that art was always a product of the age.

Interaction design major at Parsons School of Design.