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Japanese Art and Architecture

Yayoi Art, Jomon people, Japanese sculpture, haniwa, patterned carpets

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The earliest surviving Islamic knotted carpets are from Konya, in Turkey, made in the 14th century. These Konya carpets of blue, green, and red have an overall pattern based on natural forms; the border has an inscriptional band. Other distinctive geometrically patterned carpets were made under the Mamluks in pale blue, red, and yellow. Several kinds of 16th-century Turkish and Egyptian carpets—Ushak, “Holbein,” Cairene—survive; these occasionally were depicted in contemporary European paintings. Carpet weaving reached new heights under the Safavids of Iran, whose design repertoire included hunting scenes and garden motifs. A dated (1539-40) and signed example with floral designs, measuring nearly 12 m (40 ft) long, was woven for the Ardabil mosque and is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Safavid carpets of silk, in pastel tones with gold and silver areas, were woven specifically for the European market; although very beautiful, they mark the end of the purely Islamic tradition of carpet weaving.

Painting is the preferred artistic expression in Japan, practiced by amateur and professional alike. Until modern times, the Japanese wrote with a brush rather than a pen, and their familiarity with brush techniques has made them particularly sensitive to painterly values. They found sculpture a much less sympathetic medium for artistic expression; most Japanese sculpture is associated with religion, and the medium's use declined with the lessening importance of traditional Buddhism. Japanese ceramics are among the finest in the world and include the earliest known artifacts of their culture. In architecture, Japanese preferences for natural materials and an interaction of interior and exterior space are clearly expressed.

Japanese art is characterized by unique polarities. In the ceramics of the prehistoric periods, for example, exuberance was followed by disciplined and refined artistry. Another instance is provided by two 17th-century structures that are poles apart: Katsura Detached Palace is an exercise in simplicity, with an emphasis on natural materials, rough and untrimmed, and an affinity for beauty achieved by accident; Toshogu Mausoleum is a rigidly symmetrical structure replete with brightly colored relief carvings covering every visible surface. Japanese art, valued not only for its simplicity but also for its colorful exuberance, has considerably influenced 19th-century Western painting and 20th-century Western architecture.

Jomon and Yayoi Art

The first settlers of Japan, the Jomon people (10,000?-300? bc), named for the cord markings that decorated the surfaces of their clay vessels, were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They built simple houses of wood and thatch set into shallow earthen pits to provide warmth from the soil, and crafted pottery storage vessels and clay figurines called dogu. The next wave of immigrants was the Yayoi people, named for the district in Tokyo where remnants of their settlements first were found. These people, arriving in Japan about 350 bc, brought their knowledge of wetland rice cultivation, the manufacture of copper weapons and bronze bells (dotaku), and wheel-thrown, kiln-fired ceramics.

Kofun Art: Haniwa

The third stage in Japanese prehistory, the Kofun, or Tumulus, period (ad 300?-552), represents a modification of Yayoi culture, attributable either to internal development or external force. In this period diverse groups of people formed political alliances and coalesced into a nation. Typical artifacts are bronze mirrors—symbols of political alliances—and clay sculptures called haniwa, erected outside tombs.


Mason, Penelope, M.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Art, Florida State University. Author of "A Reconstruction of the Hogen Heiji Monogatari Emaki" and other books.

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