At the heart of symbolism

As the seasons go by in ancient Japan


Four seasons in Japon

Japanese poetry and painting

Japan is a country of contrasts and contrasting seasons. The most southern regions enjoy a hot and mild climate, whereas those of the north know hard winters. Moreover, the four seasons are very distinctive and characterized by plants and blossom, animals and sounds or birds and songs.

The Japanese painter has always given a great deal of importance to the seasons. He did not find his main source of inspiration in mythology or nature as in the West, but in poetry. Even when artists painted from life, they did it according to poetry precepts. Besides, paintings were most often matched with poems.

First of all, poetry was the business of scholars who were living away from the rural world and only having an idealized vision of nature. When the poet spoke about the close relationship between beings and nature, he did not speak about nature as it was or as it should have been, but of a land in all ways harmonious. This harmonious view appeared from the Heian period (794-1185) in the form of short and dense poems, ("waka") expressing the poet's feelings.

The Tale of Genji

This Tale constitutes the major work of the Japanese literature of the 11th century. The book relates the way of life at the Heian's imperial Court. Paintings in the form of hand-scrolls illustrate poems. One of them, extracted from the chapter called “Minori” (The venerable Law), shows a high-angle view of the death of lady Murasaki, the love of prince Genji.

Rouleau Genji

During the unrolling of the hand-scroll, the recumbent lady appears at the top right. Her adopted daughter, Empress Akashi, sits beside her and lightly touches her mother's face with her sleeve. Then, she disappears before Genji, at the end of the diagonal at the bottom left, collapsed due to the death of his beloved. The latter disappears in turn to make room for an abandoned garden, reflecting the inner nature of the character.

Bush clover (lespedeza) The garden is covered with bush clover, a local plant with small sets of three leaves and fine branches falling on the soil; they often adorn tombs and symbolize departure. The bush clover is next to the miscanthus, a fine silver-plated grass representative of the morning light. The plants are enveloped by dew pearling under the autumn's wind. The dew appears with the first dawn light and disappears with the first sun's rays. It represents the evanescent, the ephemeral as the hand-scroll title mentions it.

The ephemeral characterizes the human life, the outcome of which is fatal. In the utmost depths of grief, sadness and tears due to the separation, the character is going to find love in all its fullness. To do this, he will have to go through the obscure world and discover the morning freshness announcing the revival of light and being at the dawn of a new day.

Japanese poetry has always carefully avoided the use of a direct language; just as a symbol, it does not express, it suggests. That is why poets have always linked symbols to natural elements, which have been taken back and developed by painters.

The poetic form

The classical waka poetry reached its climax during the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods. However, it continued to be prolifically practiced, even when its popularity declined during the Muromachi and Edo periods.

During the Muromachi (1392-1573) period, waka was supplanted by renga, a more refined form taking the three cosmological orders (celestial or spiritual, terrestrial or physical and intermediate or human) into account. As the mountain represents at best the World Axis linking the celestial and terrestrial worlds, the adoption of the Chinese theme of landscapes of mountains and rivers, from the Song dynasty (960-1279), is nothing surprising. Landscapes of high mountains and expanses of water, represented in Buddhism (Zen) gardens by rocks and sand or ink (Zen) paintings, were very much a part of Japanese poetry and culture.

The poem or painting could be felt, at once, as a splendid representation of an outer landscape or as a support to the inner elevation of the being beyond his physical or human aspects.

The Edo (1600-1867) period made the classical poetry more widely accessible through the haikai by using, at the same time, classical and vernacular forms of the Japanese language and by borrowing from Chinese. The poets also extended the field of the treated themes to more popular aspects of Japanese life, such as very common animals or food.

Each of these poetic forms contributed in its own way to the evocation of seasons:

  • The classical waka mainly covered spring and autumn and, secondarily, summer and winter in the Heian period;
  • Renga added winter to spring and autumn;
  • Haikai considered summer as equal to spring, autumn and winter.

Seasonal poetry and painting

The symbols of seasons

As in China, the year was divided into seasons according to the luni-solar calendar and began with spring. The four seasons were split as follows in the solar calendar:

  • Spring (February-April)) opened with the song of the nightingale and the white flowers blossom of the prunus, but the blossom of the cherry trees constituted its apogee and symbol. Japanese wisterias and kerrias (bushes from the Rosaceae family) marked the end of it.
  • Summer (May-July) announced its visit with the song of the small cuckoo and the white five-petal flower of the very sweet-scented mandarin (orange) tree.
  • Autumn (August-October), the most appreciated season of Japanese and poets, began with the festival "Tanabata” celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the luni-solar calendar. The full moon, the red leaves of the maple tree or the stag bells constituted many of characteristic pictures of the season.
  • Winter (November-January) was announced by the migration of the wild geese and ended with the blossom of the snow-covered prunus.

Japanese in general and poets in particular had, for a long time, manifested a predilection for the mild periods, spring and autumn; they predominated in the classical poem anthologies with a strong preference for autumn.

The great classic Tales of Ise (10th century of our era) recounted the melancholic thought accompanying the delicate spring blossom or the autumnal leaf-fall:

  • Because they disappear in the breeze
  • we like
  • the cherry trees' flowers.
  • in this vanishing world,
  • what is, which is not ephemeral ?

The spring breeze blows the cherry tree flowers away, symbol of brevity, of fragility of things.

  • Faster than you see
  • scattering downwind
  • maple leaves
  • passing, ephemeral,
  • man's life.

The scattering of the maple tree leaves represents here the autumn of life.

In Japanese poetry, a specific feeling is often accompanied by its complement. If the melancholic characteristic linked to both seasons could plunge the Japanese artist into dereliction and nostalgia, it could also make him become aware of the precious living moment, of the instant, source of eternity as taught by Buddhism.

The painting of seasons

Only a few works of the classical period (6th - 8th centuries of our era) had the chance to cross centuries. As most paintings of the Heian and Kamakura periods were of “religious” nature, the great majority of them were accomplished by anonymous artists. The first floral representations known, of the lotus notably, appeared with the illustrations of Buddhism (Zen). Seasons were used, for example, as canvass for the narration of Siddhârta Gautama's life before he attained the state of Buddha (Awaken). Having left the royal palace, he met successively an old man, a sick man, a dead body and a monk. These meetings took place in the seasonal gardens built by his father at the four compass points of the royal city. The being had symbolically to (and must always) go through the four cardinal directions of Earth before joining the fifth one, the centre, their unified state, to be able to outshine the terrestrial states and progress towards higher states.

During the Heian period (794-1185), Japan released itself from the Chinese inspiration of the Tang dynasty (907-960) and worked out its own style (" Yamato-e "). Inspired by poems (waka) and indigenous landscapes, the artists created original topics: painting of seasons (shiki-e), painting of monthly or twelve months events (tsukinami-e) and painting of famous places (meisho-e). And sometimes they combined these three topics as the blossom of the cherry trees in the hills of Yoshino (South of Osaka) or the fall of red leaves of the maple trees on the water surface of the Tatsuta river (South of Kyoto).

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) the monochrome pictorial style appeared, inspired by Chinese Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties. The works of the (Chan) Buddhist monk, Mu Qi (1200-1260), strongly impressed (Zen) Japanese monks visiting him. His paintings had a strong influence on the Japanese ink painting and contributed to the popularity of the calligraphic line, the wash drawing intended to render gradations, the “painting without bones” (without outlines) and the stain work (splashed ink).

The Chinese naturalist topics of “flowers and birds” of the Tang dynasty, covering insects and animals as well, had inspired Japanese painters. It was developed in Japan under the denomination “flowers, moon and snow”, stressing more the seasonal changes (spring, autumn and winter) so marked in this country. This triptych in particular gave rise to Hanami (see the cherry tree flowers), the celebration of which varied according to years and regions (end of the second month - beginning of the third month of the luni-solar calendar) and to tsukimi (see the moon), celebrated the 15th day of the eighth month, day of the full moon. It was usual to compose poems in these special occasions.

One of the specific features of Japanese painting was to resort to large surfaces provided by its architecture: the sliding doors and moving screens. Around the 1400s of our era, original compositions of “flowers, moon and snow” covered doors and screens.

The Edo period saw the emergence of many pictorial movements. The Rimpa movement gathered several popular trends and resulted in very stylized compositions. The produced works were the first ones to really awaken the interest of Westerners for Japanese art.

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