The History of Japanese Art

The history of Japanese art is unquestionably rich. It’s fabulously influential across the globe, even though there isn’t even really anything can be called a ‘traditional Japanese art’! There’s such a range of artistic expression that has come from Japan in the last millennium, so we’re going to dive right in and have a look at some of the most influential moments, creators and works in Japanese art history.  

Early days – the Jōmon period (8000BCE – 300BCE)

The history of Japanese art begins with Jomon pottery.    Yes, you read that right – really early. To put into perspective, the Initial Jōmon period is about as far back in history from the Ancient Egyptians than the Ancient Egyptians are from us right now. The Jōmon period is a key point in Japanese art history because it signifies the beginnings of community and society. The art in question is mostly clay pots used for cooking, and were decorated by perforating the sides of the bullet-shaped pots with simple tools and shells. It formed the basis of Japanese crockery and tableware in the modern era, and it’s well worth comparing the two.  

Heian Period (794 – 1185)

Japanese art history moved into more paint-based practices in the 12th century   ‘Heian’ refers to the period where modern day Kyoto was first made the capital of Japan in the year 794. It remained the capital until 1868, but the Heian artistic period ends with war breaking out between the two largest warrior clans in the late 12th century. Artistically, Japan develops massively during this time. A break of communication with China in 894 kickstarted much of this development, and it is in the late Heian period that what is often referred to as ‘traditional Japanese art’ begins to emerge. Literature takes a huge step forward with Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century (see The New Yorker’s brilliant article on its cultural significance), and becomes the foundation for the corresponding Genji Monogatari Emaki. This painted scroll is in the highly influential Yamato-e style, which is typical of the Heian period, and makes use of conventions such as angular depictions of roofless rooms and minimal detail of facial expressions. It has become such an important work in Japanese art history that the surviving fragments are certified national treasures, are kept in museums and rarely shown to the public.  

Edo Period (1603 – 1868)

Japanese Prints took centre stage from the 19th century onwards   The late end of the Edo period (‘Edo’ being modern Tokyo) gives rise to the artwork most well known in the Western world: Japanese prints. These were scenes, generally landscapes, printed with carved woodblocks onto silk or paper. The most famous artists from this period are Hiroshige and Hokusai, the latter of which produced probably the most famous piece of Japanese art: The Wave off Great Kanagawa (often called ‘The Great Wave’). Woodblock printing fell into a genre of art called ukiyo-e, which was a style the greatly influenced many western artists, including the Impressionists Manet and Monet, and Post-Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh. They are incredible works of art, and make a great addition to any home – check out our great range of authentic Japanese prints, including the very best Hokusai and Hiroshige works expertly crafted using the original techniques.   Japanese art history is a fascinating cultural excursion, and we’d definitely recommend you get stuck into learning more, or maybe even trying your hand yourself with some calligraphy. Either way, we hope that the history of Japanese art keeps influencing the next generation of sculptors, painters and printers, and maybe one day they’ll produce the next Great Wave.
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