Minimalism in Japanese Art and Architecture: Roots and Significance
Minimalism is one of the key characteristics of Japanese art and general aesthetic culture. Its influence on art, fashion and lifestyle worldwide is difficult to underestimate. The concept of wabi-sabi, for instance, despite the complexity of interpretation from the perspective of other cultures, is gaining great popularity in modern society around the world. Wabi-sabi preaches closeness to nature and the beauty of imperfection, calls to abandon the pursuit of the ideal and luxury. Its simplified meaning is “flawed beauty” (John, 2007). The following article delves into the historical development of the distinctiveness of Japanese minimalism.
Minimalism in Japanese art and architecture is not an accidental aesthetic phenomenon but a developed system of beliefs. Emptiness historically was of great importance in Japanese religious traditions. An empty space, enclosed and covered in pebbles, would be left in front of Shinto shrines and was considered the dwelling place of the gods. At the same time, in Zen Buddhism, which significantly influenced Japanese culture (Dumoulin, 2005), emptiness is perceived as an expression of the true nature of all things and carries an implication that is in sharp contrast to the Western perception. It conveys not an objective absence, but a metaphysical fullness. Greed and attachment to things is considered by Buddhism to be one of the three obstacles on the path to awakening (Buswell, 2004). Thus, an understanding of the semantic meaning of minimalism in pictorial and architectural space in the Japanese tradition is impossible without an analysis of the religious and philosophical foundations of the culture.
Figure 1. A Japanese house. [Digital image]
Japan's entry into the era of feudalism, starting in the 9th century CE, is characterised by the establishment of contact with China and Korea, which had a significant impact on the spiritual tradition of the country (Henshall, 2012). Nevertheless, any influence is inevitably subject to assimilation and the adopted ideas were transformed, fused with local traditions, and adapted to realities of local life. Furthermore, not only traditions, but also natural conditions play a crucial role in the formation of an original culture. Japan is an island state located on four large (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku) and many small islands, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, and the Sea of Okhotsk. Features of the island’s geography, as well as mountainous landscape and active volcanoes, cause increased seismic activity. The constant threat of earthquakes and typhoons forms the habit of being prepared for the possibility that everything that has been built can be suddenly, instantly and irrevocably destroyed (Eliseev & Eliseeff, 2006).
The Japanese have mastered the art of rational use of space since ancient times. In addition, the need for frequent rebuilds, as well as safety concerns, have set the standard for design features in Japanese architecture. Such a practical approach could hinder the formation of creative originality, but religious veneration of nature and careful incorporation of man-made structures contributed to the emergence of the vibrant beauty of Japanese architecture. It stands out for its graphic conciseness and harmonious correspondence with the landscape. This connection with nature, as well as the mastered ability to create the physical embodiment of etherealness and proportionality was visually supported by the lightness of the main building material —wood. Emptiness was the main aspect of aesthetic expressiveness of interior space, which was almost completely free from furniture. A culture of cleanliness, connected to the idea of purity, understood both in the spiritual and in the physical sense, has long been established in Japan as a life principle. A residential building, kept in exceptional cleanliness and not cluttered with household items, might include a shrine on the premises which brings additional spiritual significance to the space. Of particular importance for the interior is also the play of natural light and shadow (Eliseev & Eliseeff, 2006).
Figure 2. Dry Garden in Ryoanji, Kyoto. [Digital image]
Rhythm, spatial depth and thoughtful design of the garden —a must-have in every house and temple—are traditionally associated with pantheistic symbolism. The landscape garden is not an element of decoration, it is the abode of the deities of nature and it reveals their manifestations in the form of the rustle of leaves, the sound of the wind, the murmur of water. The garden is one of the most significant components of a Japanese medieval temple. Its space, mainly intended for contemplation from inside the building, is designed in such a way that it could not be immediately seen in the fullness of its decorative solution. Contemplating it is an experience that is extended in time and space and, due to the visual reorganisation of the elements of the landscape, viewing it from different angles is supposed to inspire unique thoughts and impressions. There is also not a single random detail in the Japanese garden and all parts are set with the same careful thought and intention (Kuck, 1980). As a consequence of such attitudes towards the material reality, these principles of construction and organisation of space, as well as the mystical meaning invested in them, spread to all art of medieval Japan. Painting and poetry, always thoroughly rhythmically constructed, were also spared from the superfluous, leaving room only for what was the essence for a medieval Japanese person —for a concise and careful comprehension of sacred manifestations of the surrounding reality (Parkes & Loughnane, 2018).
From the end of the 13th century, the emphasis in painting shifted more and more to the landscape. This is associated with the growing influence of Zen philosophy. Buddhist deities are often depicted as mountains, waterfalls, sacred animals. At the same time, a new pictorial interpretation of the scheme of the universe finds expression in mandalas (geometrically organised representations of sacred symbols), where images of deities are replaced by images of Shinto shrines. During the Muromachi period (14th-16th centuries), the final formation of the concept of a special artistic landscape occurred. It was based on the pantheistic religious tradition and as a result, for the first time in Japanese art, nature came to be the main subject of the image. Its depiction became a representation of the ideals of the time (Uspenskij, 2004). Priest and painter Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506) was the main spokesman for the new trends in Japanese art. The unique expressiveness of his creative method can be witnessed in the painting Winter (circa 1480). This landscape, filled with severe simplicity was not only the embodiment of the idea of the cosmic power of the universe, but also a kind of hymn to its beauty (Uspenskij, 2004).
Figure 3. Sesshu Toyo, Winter, ca. 1470. [Ink on paper]
At the stage that completed the history of Japanese feudal culture, decorative beginnings in art intensified. However, the nature of the religious and creative worldview of previous periods laid the foundation for the originality of Japanese art. In the late 17th - early 18th centuries, in contrast to the pomposity of court art, sketch accompaniments to short haiku poems were created in the form of laconic, lyrical monochrome compositions of drawing and calligraphy - haiga. The Kyoto school of Nanga, or Bundzinga, carried the traditions of haiga. That period seems to be the point of the complete formation of the recognisable features of Japanese minimalist art (Uspenskij, 2004).
Japanese minimalism, that spread to all areas of the country's art and everyday life, inspiring poets, artists and designers, is a unique system of worldview that has evolved over centuries. It is impossible to single out one source of this phenomenon. Religious ideas and traditions are intertwined with purely practical reasons for choosing laconic architectural and pictorial solutions. Japanese minimalism harmonises the objective world and nature, calling on a person to keep this harmony and carrying in its philosophy such values as calmness and discipline of thoughts and feelings.
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Figure 1. Kanabe, T. A Japanese house. Stocksy. Retrieved from https://www.thespruce.com/what-is-japanese-architecture-4782377
Figure 2. D'Alu, S. (2004). Dry Garden in Ryoanji, late 15th century. Kyoto, Japan. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RyoanJi-Dry_garden.jpg
Figure 3. Sesshu Toyo. (ca. 1470) Winter. Ink on paper. Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, Japan. Retrieved from https://smarthistory.org/theme-nature/