Japanese art has had a profound effect on European artists, stemming from Degas and Van Gogh, right through to Toulouse-Lautrec and Monet. As such, every art lover should be armed with a brief span of its rich history.
UKIYO-E and UKIYO
The Japanese term, Ukiyo-e, commonly translated as “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a style of genre painting and woodblock printing that arose in Japan during the 17th century and fell into decline in the 19th century. Similarly, Ukiyo, or “floating world” refers to the pleasure seeking and decadent features of the urban lifestyle, ubiquitous in Japanese society throughout the Edo period from approximately 1600 to 1867. Within its interrelated engagements in poetry, literature, theatre, story telling (rakugo), visual arts and the highly refined engagements of the licensed brothel quarters, the “floating world” sub-culture cultivated its own carefully refined behaviours, manners and sensibilities implicit in the word Ukiyo itself.
Ukiyo originated from Buddhist beliefs that were founded on the ephemeral nature of man’s existence; “floating world” thus came to represent a preoccupation with the present moment – the latest fashions, pursuits and life styles of urban culture – a certain chicness. Ukiyo prints were developed as a product of the city of Edo (today’s Tokyo), essentially by and for the townsman class of that city. In an aesthetic sense, Ukiyo-e focussed on decadence, linear form, and the refinement of design and technique. In a general sense, Ukiyo focussed on the way in which institutions developed to service the needs of an urbane lifestyle and in particular, an urbane entertainment industry.
During this period, the Edo people developed a newfound desire for capturing aesthetic experience, and a willingness to adopt the trappings of taste within the realm of beauty. The Edo people saw this as much through street entertainment and Kabuki theatre as they did through the arts – there was an engagement with these art forms through drinking and laughing, and through employing a sense of real refinement and an abundance of knowledge. These art forms reflected a world of pleasure, aspiration and expensive glamour. The “floating world” was a way of life; it created its own code of behaviour and set of values. These values were not consistent with prevalent morals prior to this period, but rather, were founded on the notion of style as pre-eminent. Although the “floating world” was constantly shifting locations, its quintessential locale was the pleasure quarters, or, the enclosed districts of prostitution that had been set up under official license, first in Kyoto in 1589.
Many artists experimented with technique and as a consequence there were rapid advances in woodblock printing. The woodblocks prints of the “golden age” of Ukiyo display a confidence and maturity that achieved a level of refinement and consistency of taste that was rarely equalled after 1800.
Hello Kitty is a fictional character in the form of a female Japanese bobtail cat. Hello Kitty epitomises Japanese popular culture that has escalated into a world wide phenomenon, with the company, Sanrio, now worth five billion dollars each year. Hello Kitty merchandise is now available in almost any form, including the banal such as shoes, clothing, books, stationary, and the more extreme such as machines guns, aeroplanes, cars and tattoos. What I find most interesting about Hello Kitty is that she does not have a mouth and has thus managed to achieve such popularity as a character with no dialogue.
Yayoi Kusama transforms entire galleries into a work of art. When I went to her exhibition three years ago, she had covered the outside of the Turnball Gallery in giant coloured polka dots. Kusama does not hold back on sharing the difficulties of her life – she has always suffered from extreme OCD and has manifested herself in a behavioural and graphic phenomenon. At first a desire to obliterate any sense of identity, some of her earliest works were portraits of her mother, obsessively covered in dots. Kusama’s disorder, which was exacerbated by her repressive mother, drove her to NYC in 1957 where she began “infinity net paintings” of the network in-between the dots. These works would stretch across whole walls, floors and ceilings. Here Kusama became closely associated with Andy Warhol and The Factory. Repetitions of commodities and the notion of mass production demonstrate this link with Warhol.
Fireflies at Night is one of Kusama’s installation pieces. Here the viewer walks into a small door and steps onto a wooden platform surrounded by water. The walls and ceiling are made of mirrors and millions of tiny coloured lights reflect into infinite space. At eye level they seem to zero off into the horizon, above they seem to vary in size and intensity, and when you turn around they seem to shake into a vibration, because the water shatters the movement of the lights. Miraculously, you cannot see yourself in the reflections.
What is it in works like these that are Japanese in flavour? The light is symbolic of the Heian period, were Court parties would go out at night and wach fireflies dance over the riverbanks. The Japanese preoccupation with pattern is evident in Kusama’s lights and dots which can be traced back to 1,000 years ago, where patterned surfaces were used to decorate Genji scrolls and kimonos during the Edo period. Kusama is a valued artist for embracing a variety of dimensions, including modern art, pop art, performance art and post-modernism, and most recently, her collaboration with Louis Vuitton.
Yoko Ono continues to amaze the contemporary art world with her installations, construction pieces, performances, films, music and archive material. She is not only an avid artist but a film-maker, writer, poet and peace activist too who has embraced a range of media and invented and created new forms of art. I love Yoko!
Easy, peasy, Japaneasy.