The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Japanese art section has a variety of pieces, ranging from earliest calligraphy on scrolls from the Muromachi period (1392–1573) to contemporary sculptures from the Shōwa period (1926–1989). During the Neolithic times, Japan’s main source of creativity was from China. As neighboring countries, it was convenient for Japan to gain many of its artistic culture from China. The Japanese were experts in absorbing Chinese culture and teachings, and elevating it into their own. The earliest forms of Japanese calligraphy were Japanese artists trying to emulate their Chinese master’s handwriting. Artist Motsurin Joto copied many pieces of famous Zen monk Bai Juyi, and took in Buddhism and Zen teachings to Japan.
The identity of Japanese art all started with Chinese influences. A common medium used throughout Chinese paintings was watercolor. The tranquility and lightness that watercolor exuded was a relation to Zen teachings many poets and philosophers held valuable. Eventually, the Japanese started taking Chinese watercolor landscape paintings and reinterpreting them in their own way. The slight shift of Japan creating their own art marked the end of the Muromachi period.
Following the Muromachi period was the Edo period (1615–1868). During the Edo period, the Japanese started simplifying their paintings and calligraphy pieces. Stripping away unnecessary details, the Japanese started creating their identity of a timeless minimalist aesthetic with a clean and simple composition. The traditional thick powerful calligraphy stroke becomes elegantly thinner and has even more curves and stylistic qualities. The Japanese practiced their calligraphy through bunjin-ga (“literati painting”), or nanga (“painting of the southern school”); a Chinese literati culture, introduced by Ming Chinese monks.
Contemporary Japanese art started in the Shōwa period, a “period of enlightened peace/harmony" or "period of radiant Japan.” Contemporary Japanese art started having Western influences applied. When Japan became economically and politically isolated from China during this period, the Japanese finally had the confidence and knowledge to create their own unique kind of art. Though the Chinese influences are still evident in the contemporary pieces, it is seemingly Japanese art. Conventions of Japanese art became a natural wood aesthetic, simple cuts of geometric designs and a balanced minimalistic composition.
A timeline of Japanese art within the influences of Chinese culture can be understood through , Joto’s 「離離原上草一歳一枯榮」（白居易『草』より) Couplet from the Chinese Poem “Grasses” by Bai Juyi (15th century), Sōami’s Landscape of the Four Seasons (Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers) (16th century), Rosetsu’s Puppies in the Snow (late 18th century), Hōitsu’s 三十六歌仙図 The Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals (Sanjūrokkasen) (1824), Noguchi’s Water Stone (1986).
Motsurin Joto (died 1491). 「離離原上草一歳一枯榮」（白居易『草』より Couplet from the Chinese Poem “Grasses” by Bai Juyi, 15th Century. Hanging scroll; ink on paper, 46 3/4 × 10 3/8 in. (118.8 × 26.4 cm)
Motsurin Jōtō was a follower of Zen monk, Bai JuYi, during the Tang Dynasty. Motsurin Joto wrote in calligraphy a couplet from JuYi’s Grasses. The Chinese characters translate to:
Wild grasses spread out
far across the plains.
Each year they wither,
only to flourish again.
—Trans. John T. Carpenter
Joto goes as far to mimic JuYi’s handwriting as well. As an apprentice under JuYi, Joto brought Zen and calligraphy written on scrolls to Japan. Traditional Chinese calligraphy is thick and bold, emphasizing the power each character evoked. The Chinese characters written in calligraphy are artistically stylized with seemingly light brushed strokes. Each character was not meant to be legible, but rather an artistic symbol. The mastery of the craft was through the composition of each character and the precision of line weight. The Japanese took in teachings from the Chinese and that was their starting point, by absorbing, learning, and copying.
Sōami (died 1525). Landscape of the Four Seasons (Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers), early 16th century. Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink on paper, 68 1/4 × 146 in. (173.4 × 370.8 cm)
Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang River was originally an influential Chinese painting that was later reinterpreted by Japanese and Korean artists. The Japanese version done by Sōami was interpreted with a theme of painting the Xiao and Xiang River in four seasons. The painting was done with watery and translucent strokes, a common motif spread between Chinese and Japanese paintings. The contrast and line weight is similar to Couplet from the Chinese Poem “Grasses” by Bai Juyi. The line weight and composition is balanced and there is not a specific focus within the painting, making it a unified piece.
It was also the era when Buddhism was brought over from India. Starting from China, the religion eventually went to Japan. Soami ended up signing the painting with the quintessential red Chinese stamp with his Buddhist name. The Japanese are still taking in a lot of Chinese culture. But instead of creating a carbon copy of a Chinese painting, Sōami painted the same landscape from his perspective through the observation of the landscape rather than a painting of the landscape.
Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754–1799). Puppies in the Snow, late 18th century. Set of four sliding panels hinged together as a pair of two-panel screens; ink and color on paper, 66 7/16 × 72 1/16 in. (168.7 × 183 cm)
The Japanese started simplifying and animating their paintings. The painting is playful and fun, capturing the authentic spirit of the animal. The purposeful composition of the white and grey puppies were used to bring focus to the grey dogs placed in the center, giving the eye a specific focus within the piece. The conventional painting of a dog from the Chinese perspective was fierce and tough. Guard dogs were typically depicted next to warriors. In fact, dogs were not a prominent animal to paint. The Chinese painted animals that evoked strength and power, such as tigers or dragons; or animals that represented tranquility and balance, such as koi fish or river shrimp.
The amount of lineweight and contrast becomes less noticeable compared to Landscape of the Four Seasons (Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers). The Japanese started stripping away dark outlines and small details prevalent in Chinese paintings, but still holding onto the idea of Zen. Rosetsu set the convention of Japanese Zen as minimalistic aesthetics and simple design.
Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828). 三十六歌仙図 The Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals (Sanjūrokkasen), 1824. Handscroll; ink and color on paper, 11 5/8 in. × 27 ft. 1 13/16 in. (29.5 × 827.6 cm)
Hoitsu’s calligraphy kept the calligraphy characters stylized but took away the bold thick strokes seen in traditional Chinese calligraphy. The reinvented Japanese calligraphy becomes minimal and elegant, a calming quality to the eye.
A common way the Japanese recorded famous poets was in a hand-scroll format, an adoption of the long scrolls seen in Chinese poetry paintings. Hoitsu painted famous poets next to one of their poems. The motif of colored hair, skin and head pieces was to create a dominance and focus within the piece. Conventionally females had pale white faces as an ideal beauty convention. The simplification of the clothing gives attention to the poetry.
Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988). Water Stone, 1986. Basalt, H. 25 in. (63.6 cm); W. 42 3/4 in. (108.6 cm); Wt. 1 ton
American born artist Isamu Noguchi created a stone fountain. The water flows in an incredibly thin sheet, making it almost invisible. Noguchi went back to his roots in Japan to create this piece.
The rich dark color of the basalt makes it the focus within the environment. It is cut with geometric sides with a minimal and timeless aesthetic. The wooden screen adds an appreciation for nature and Zen. Smooth light wood has become an architectural convention that is seen in many Japanese gardens. The harmonious elements of the piece evokes an idyllic effect
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