Complex Japanese art had its beginning in the late half of the 8th century AD, and as it was all the way on the other side of the Asian continent, it remained exclusive to its region for several centuries. Japanese arts included sculptures made of wood and bronze, calligraphy, ink drawings, and fine clay pottery as well, which were based on Buddhism, in particular, up until the 9th century AD. After Japan moved away from China’s influence, their art became more secular, remaining so until the 15th century, when again, religious themes came into play, but in equal amounts to secular themes this time. The 10-year Onin War (1467 -1477) in Japan had various effects on Japanese art, which lasted for the next 100 years, and the result was that the surviving works from that era are mostly secular pieces.
Bandainagon Ekotoba is the surviving work of Tokiwa Mitsunaga, a 12th century artist who made the handscroll painting known as an emakimono. The scroll is about 31.5cm tall and over 20m long, and it is a narrative story of Japanese court life surrounding the tale of a historical 9th century event called the Ōtemmon Conspiracy. The story is told in 3 chapters, each having its own scroll, and is unusual because it was made using a mix of otoko-e and tsukuri-e styles. The scrolls were created around 1177, after being commissioned by the Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who wanted to appease the angry spirit of Ban Dainagon.
Kanō Eitoku was a famous painter who lived in Japan during the 16th century. He was born into an artistically renowned family, and his life dates from February 16, 1543 - October 12, 1590. Eitoku learned how to paint in the Chinese style from his grandfather Kanō Motonobu, and worked with his father on projects, but he created his own Kanō School “taiga” style of rapid and boldly drawn brushstrokes. Eitoku’s studio became a pre-eminent workshop, and with his much sought after talent he gained high paying commissions and great status during his lifetime. Few of his works have survived, but those that do include: Chinese Guardian Lions (Karajishi), Trees (on sliding doors), and Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons.
Utagawa Hiroshige was a 19th century Japanese artist, born in 1797 and died on October 12, 1858. He did not come from a family of artists, but from a minor family who worked for their shogun as fire-fighters. Hiroshige is considered the last of the greatest Japanese ukiyo-e artists. He began his training with an artist friend from his barracks, and was later schooled and given his artist name from his master, Utagawa Toyohiro, when he was 15 years old. He first presented his original works when he was 21 years old, and became a successful painter and printmaker after that. Some of his works are: View of Kagurazaka and Ushigome Bridge to Edo Castle, 1840; Upright Tōkaidō, (1855) ; Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge; and The Plum Garden in Kameido, the latter being later reproduced by Vincent van Gogh.
The artists mentioned here are but a small selection of the numerous Japanese artists and artisans who were, and are, responsible for the heritage of truly enjoyable traditional Japanese artworks. The original settlers of Japan arrived there, presumably as far back as 11,000 BC, and they had brought with them their own primitive arts, such as designs on pottery. As each invasion or migration of new settlers to the Japanese islands arrived, their influences improved and changed the art styles that had been prevalent. Many art styles came and went, and they developed independently from the Western arts. The unique beauty of Japanese art allows us to enjoy it on a genuinely different level than that of European or North American artworks.