Heian Art

Movement: Heian Art
Dates: 794 - 1185

Heian art

In 794 the capital of Japan was officially transferred to Heian-ky (present-day Kyoto), where it remained until 1868. The term Heian period refers to the years between 794 and 1185, when the Kamakura shogunate was established at the end of the Genpei War. The period is further divided into the early Heian and the late Heian, or Fujiwara era, the pivotal date being 894, the year imperial embassies to China were officially discontinued.

Early Heian art: In reaction to the growing wealth and power of organized Buddhism in Nara, the priest Kkai (best known by his posthumous title Kb Daishi, 774-835) journeyed to China to study Shingon, a form of Vajrayana Buddhism, which he introduced into Japan in 806. At the core of Shingon worship is mandalas, diagrams of the spiritual universe, which then began to influence temple design. Japanese Buddhist architecture also adopted the stupa, originally an Indian architectural form, in its Chinese-style pagoda.

The temples erected for this new sect were built in the mountains, far away from the Court and the laity in the capital. The irregular topography of these sites forced Japanese architects to rethink the problems of temple construction, and in so doing to choose more indigenous elements of design. Cypress-bark roofs replaced those of ceramic tile, wood planks were used instead of earthen floors, and a separate worship area for the laity was added in front of the main sanctuary.

The temple that best reflects the spirit of early Heian Shingon temples is the Mur-ji (early 9th century), set deep in a stand of cypress trees on a mountain southeast of Nara. The wooden image (also early 9th century) of Shakyamuni, the "historic" Buddha, enshrined in a secondary building at the Mur-ji, is typical of the early Heian sculpture, with its ponderous body, covered by thick drapery folds carved in the honpa-shiki (rolling-wave) style, and its austere, withdrawn facial expression.

Fujiwara art: In the Fujiwara period, Pure Land Buddhism, which offered easy salvation through belief in Amida (the Buddha of the Western Paradise), became popular. This period is named after the Fujiwara family, then the most powerful in the country, who ruled as regents for the Emperor, becoming, in effect, civil dictators. Concurrently, the Kyoto nobility developed a society devoted to elegant aesthetic pursuits. So secure and beautiful was their world that they could not conceive of Paradise as being much different. They created a new form of Buddha hall, the Amida hall, which blends the secular with the religious, and houses one or more Buddha images within a structure resembling the mansions of the nobility.

The H--d (Phoenix Hall, completed 1053) of the Byd-in, a temple in Uji to the southeast of Kyoto, is the exemplar of Fujiwara Amida halls. It consists of a main rectangular structure flanked by two L-shaped wing corridors and a tail corridor, set at the edge of a large artificial pond. Inside, a single golden image of Amida (c. 1053) is installed on a high platform. The Amida sculpture was executed by Jch, who used a new canon of proportions and a new technique (yosegi), in which multiple pieces of wood are carved out like shells and joined from the inside. Applied to the walls of the hall are small relief carvings of celestials, the host believed to have accompanied Amida when he descended from the Western Paradise to gather the souls of believers at the moment of death and transport them in lotus blossoms to Paradise. Raig paintings on the wooden doors of the H--d, depicting the Descent of the Amida Buddha, are an early example of Yamato-e, Japanese-style painting, and contain representations of the scenery around Kyoto.

E-maki: In the last century of the Heian period, the horizontal, illustrated narrative handscroll, known as e-maki (, lit. "picture scroll"), came to the fore. Dating from about 1130, the Genji Monogatari Emaki, a famous illustrated Tale of Genji represents the earliest surviving yamato-e handscroll, and one of the high points of Japanese painting. Written about the year 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Shshi, the novel deals with the life and loves of Genji and the world of the Heian court after his death. The 12th-century artists of the e-maki version devised a system of pictorial conventions that convey visually the emotional content of each scene. In the second half of the century, a different, livelier style of continuous narrative illustration became popular. The Ban Dainagon Ekotoba (late 12th century), a scroll that deals with an intrigue at court, emphasizes figures in active motion depicted in rapidly executed brush strokes and thin but vibrant colors.

E-maki also serve as some of the earliest and greatest examples of the otoko-e ("men's pictures") and onna-e ("women's pictures") styles of painting. There are many fine differences in the two styles, appealing to the aesthetic preferences of the genders. But perhaps most easily noticeable are the differences in subject matter. Onna-e, epitomized by the Tale of Genji handscroll, typically deals with court life, particularly the court ladies, and with romantic themes. Otoko-e often recorded historical events, particularly battles. The Siege of the Sanj Palace (1160), depicted in the "Night Attack on the Sanj Palace" section of the Heiji Monogatari handscroll is a famous example of this style.

See also

  • National Treasures of Japan
  • List of National Treasures of Japan (crafts-others)
  • Culture of Japan
    • Eastern art history
    • History of painting
    • Buddhist art
      • Buddhist art in Japan
    • Japanese architecture
    • Japanese garden
    • Japanese calligraphy
    • Japanese lacquerware
    • Japanese painting
    • Japanese pottery and porcelain
    • Japanese sculpture
    • Japanese theater
    • Woodblock printing in Japan
  • List of collections of Japanese art
  • Art Galleries
    • Japan
      • Tokyo National Museum, est. 1872
      • Kyoto National Museum, est. 1889
      • Nara National Museum, est. 1889
      • Kyushu National Museum, est. 2005
    • United States
      • Freer Gallery of Art, est. 1923
      • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • Japanese artists category
  • Musha-e



  • This article was originally based on material from WebMuseum Paris - Famous Artworks exhibition [1].
  • Japan - This article incorporatespublic domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/.
  • Boardman, John, "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity", Princeton University Press, 1994, ISBN0-691-03680-2
  • Earle, Joe (1999). Splendors of Meiji: treasures of imperial Japan: masterpieces from the Khalili Collection. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Broughton International Inc. ISBN1874780137. OCLC42476594.
  • Impey, Oliver, in Battie, David, ed., Sotheby's Concise Encyclopedia of Porcelain, 71-74, 1990, Conran Octopus. ISBN1850292515
  • Kaempfer, H. M. and W. O. G. Sickinghe The Fascinating World of the Japanese Artist. A Collection of Essays on Japanese Art by Members of the Society for Japanese Arts and Crafts, The Hague, Society for Japanese Arts and Crafts, 1971. ISBN0-87093-156-3
  • Kapur, Nick (2018). Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN978-0674984424.
  • "Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural contacts from Greece to Japan" (NHK and Tokyo National Museum, 2003)
  • "De l'Indus l'Oxus, Archologie de l'Asie Centrale", Osmund Bopearachchi, Christine Sachs, ISBN2-9516679-2-2
  • "The Crossroads of Asia, Transformation in image and symbols", 1992, ISBN0-9518399-1-8

Further reading

  • Momoyama, Japanese art in the age of grandeur. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1975. ISBN9780870991257.
  • Murase, Miyeko (2000). Bridge of dreams: the Mary Griggs Burke collection of Japanese art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN978-0870999413.
  • (in Spanish and Japanese) Kato, Kauro [sic] ( Kat Kaoru) (Kanagawa University), translator: Saeko Yanagisawa. "Acercamiento a la influencia del movimiento muralista mexicano en el arte contemporneo de Japn." (, Archive) Crnicas. El Muralismo, Producto de la Revolucin Mexicana, en Amrica. National Autonomous University of Mexico. December 2008, No. 13, p.237264. Spanish: p.237255, Japanese: p.256264.

External links

  • Five Thousand Years of Japanese Art Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, online version
  • Japanese Prints by John Gould Fletcher
  • e-Museum High definition images of national treasures and important cultural properties owned by four national museums in Japan
  • Ukiyo-e in the "A World History of Art"
  • Japan Cultural Profile - national cultural portal for Japan created by Visiting Arts/Japan Foundation
  • Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art Collection, online collection of images from the Online Archive of California/University of California Merced
  • The Herbert Offen Research Collection of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum
  • The Art of Bonsai Project
  • The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito: Sculptures, calligraphy, photographs of a buddhist Great Master (Grand Acharya)
  • "History of Japanese Art" Lecture at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts by Okakura Kakuzo (English Translation)
  • Japanese Art of the Meiji Period (1868 1912) The Khalili Collections

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