The Beauty and Complexity of Minimalism: Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tōhaku and a Shoki-Imari Sake Bottle

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  • Published : April 15, 2012
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The Beauty and Complexity of Minimalism
Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tōhaku and a Shoki-Imari sake bottle

Today’s modern world is often complex, colorful, noisy and fast-paced. When I am engaged in art, I frequently look for works that allow me to escape from my hectic lifestyle. Clean lines and use of space appeal to my senses and calm me. Sometimes, what is not stated says more than what is stated. I have learned from my study of Japanese art history this semester that simplicity seems to be a common theme in many of the artworks produced throughout Japan’s rich history. Of course, this is not always the case; there are plenty of works that are colorful and loud. Use of color, in fact, seems to be an appreciated value in much of the art I have seen. However, there seems to a simplistic nature in even the most complex of Japanese artwork. This minimalism appears to be an appreciated Japanese aesthetic.

Two works of Japanese art stood out to me this semester, precisely for their minimalistic nature: Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tōhaku from the late 16th century Momoyama period, and a Shoki-Imari sake bottle from the 17th century Edo period. While there are many differences between these two works, they appear to complement each other. Each of these works has a rich history behind its creation and they both convey a sense of complex simplicity. Before diving into the two works of art presented in this essay, a brief overview of the periods that spawned these artworks is necessary; specifically the relationship of the Momoyama and Edo periods with painting and ceramics, respectively. 1. Momoyama Background

Artistically, the Momoyama period (1568-1615) was the most important half-century period in the history of Japan (Swann 211). Momoyama means “Peach Blossom Hill,” and the period drew its name from the flowering peach trees, over-looked by the great Fushimi Castle, which was frequented by the local residents of the prefecture (Hickman 19). Hickman states, “[The term, Momoyama] seems appropriate… for the vision of a brilliant cloud of evanescent peach blossoms serves well as an evocative visual metaphor for the period, a ‘golden age’ of short duration but memorable accomplishments,” (19). The period was fraught with intense warfare between clans, and the emperor remained powerless, but the Momoyama laid the foundation for a modern Japan that would experience over two hundred and fifty years of peace in the Edo period.

Momoyama’s art was defined by color and movement that took the place of previously used monochrome and stillness (Swann 215). Artists suddenly felt free of restraint and were free to breath new life into old themes and form original interpretations (215). Color, gold and silver were frequently used in art. The Kanō school style of painting gained prominence. Folding screens, covered in paper with bold paintings, became increasingly popular. “Perhaps [The Momoyama’s] most important product is among the most conspicuously decorative works ever produced… a movable and flexible wall of dubious utilitarian value, but perhaps the most significant creation of the Japanese decorative style,” (qtd. Swann 216). The large area of the folding screen lent itself to broad, sweeping brushstrokes and immense designs. The Momoyama period attempted to bring nature into the household. 2. Hasegawa Tōhaku

Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539-1610) was born in Nanao in the province of Noto (Tazawa 83). He was a painter of the Momoyama period who was able to paint in both Chinese and Japanese styles (Swann 219). Before he took the name Tōhaku, he went by the name Shinshun and mainly produced portraits and Buddhist paintings (Tazawa 83). Hasegawa Tōhaku was highly skilled and studied the works of Sesshū, Shūbun, Kanga, the Kanō school and Song and Yuan Chinese dynasty painters (83). Much of his work represented the style of the Momoyama period – flowering trees, flowers, and bright colors. However, his most famous paintings, like...
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