Discover the roots of cutting-edge art in Kyoto, a treasure trove of Japanese masterpieces[PR]

Japanese artworks have exerted a considerable influence on all kinds of artists across time and space. Many of the finest of these works, considered to be at the pinnacle of Japanese art, are tucked away in Japan’s old capital, Kyoto. In April 2020, the Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art (Kyoto City Museum of Art) will hold an exhibition entitled Kyoto National Treasure — To Protect and Convey Japanese Treasure that will showcase these masterpieces linked to Kyoto, with a particular focus on works that have been designated national treasures. Here we will give you some background to create a context for enjoying traditional Japanese fine art. Main image: National treasure Genjo Sanzo e (Fujita Museum collection), Photo courtesy of Nara National Museum

Yamato-e – 1,100 years on and still influencing cutting-edge media art today

teamLab is a Japan-based media art collective that exhibits their work all over the world, with solo exhibitions at Expo Milan 2015 and London’s Pace Gallery forming just part of a long list of places where their work has been showcased including Paris, New York, Singapore, Shanghai, and Taipei.

The interpretation of the world in the works this collective creates using innovative digital tools is strongly influenced by a traditional Japanese style of painting known as Yamato-e.

Yamato-e (National treasure, The Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen [Chion-in Temple collection]), Photo courtesy of Kyoto National Museum

When you first lay eyes on a painting in the Yamato-e genre, said to have originated eleven hundred years ago, you may feel a sense of disconnection with the planar style showing little depth.

In contrast to Western art which, since the Renaissance, has used perspective to portray a three-dimensional world seen from a certain viewpoint, Yamato-e depict a flat world that encompasses an entire scene viewed from above.

With regard to this curious portrayal of space, Toshiyuki Inoko, representative of teamLab, believes that “Japanese people may once have had a different interpretation of space to the laws of perspective seen in the West”. Inspired by this notion, Inoko and his team are creating a new kind of representation of space in a digital format.

This type of spatial representation that grew out of Yamato-e developed to become the foundation of painting styles in Japan. Indeed, at the root of the ukiyo-e loved by impressionist painters such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, is the out-of-perspective interpretation of the world depicted in Yamato-e.

Kyoto, an international hub with a range of cultural influences from the Silk Road

So, just how did this kind of painting style come about? Interestingly enough, we find that overseas influences can be discovered in the roots of Japanese artworks such as Yamato-e.

Of these overseas influences, it was Chinese artworks that made the strongest impression on Japanese fine arts. To begin with, the ‘Yamato’ of Yamato-e is the ancient name for Japan, and the term Yamato-e was created to contrast it with kara-e, a painting style imported into Japan during China’s Tang dynasty (618 – 907). Reio Fujita, of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, gives us the following explanation about the origins of Japanese fine arts.

Mr. Fujita: Japan is also known as the eastern terminus of the silk road. Works of art were brought here from multiple different regions – not only from Europe, but also countries such as India, China, and Korea. Kyoto, Japan’s capital at the time, was an international cultural hub that received an influx of culture from a range of different countries.

Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art (Kyoto City Museum of Art), Photographer: Takeru Koroda, Photo courtesy of Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art

Kyoto, Japan’s political and cultural center for many a long year, is still home to many fine examples of Japanese art including of course Yamato-e.

Take for example the Kyoto National Museum located 20 minutes’ walk from Kyoto Station. This museum boasts a collection of some 13,000 paintings, statues of Buddha and other works of art, with a focus on cultural assets that have a connection with Kyoto.

There is also the Hosomi Museum located near the Heian Jingu shrine, one of the highlights of a trip to Kyoto. This museum houses a collection that covers almost every period in the history of Japanese fine arts that spans more than 2,000 years.

And now in April 2020, the Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art (Kyoto City Museum of Art), also located near to Heian Jingu shrine, will host an exhibition entitled Kyoto National Treasure — To Protect and Convey Japanese Treasure that collects together under one roof many masterpieces with a connection to Kyoto.

Key visual for Kyoto National Treasure — To Protect and Convey Japanese Treasure

One of the artworks in this exhibition, the Kasuga Gongen Genki e (literally, The Miracles of the Kasuga Deities), is a set of scrolls painted in the 14th century. Many illustrated scrolls in the Yamato-e style have survived into the present day, but these richly hued works depicting the chronicles of the Shinto (Japan’s indigenous religion) deities of Kasuga Shrine are considered to be masterpieces of this genre.

Kasuga Gongen Genki e, Photo courtesy of The Imperial Household Agency’s Museum of the Imperial Collections

Another work from the 14th century, Honen Shonin eden or The Illustrated Biography of Priest Honen, depicts the life and times of Buddhist monk Honen who lived in the 12th century. These scrolls also include many portraits of ordinary people along with Honen, giving us a chance to see the lively appearance of the Japanese people who lived in those times.

National treasure Mokuzo Bonten Zazo (Kyoo Gokokuji collection), Photo courtesy of Benrido

But the exhibition content is not solely paintings – it showcases a total of 43 works of art including sculptures such as the 9th century Mokuzo Bonten Zazo, and other objets d’art, including a 13th century tea bowl, Taihi Tenmoku Chawan, imported from China. All of the items in the exhibition are in some way connected to Kyoto and 37 of the 43 have also been designated national treasures.

National Treasure Taihi Tenmoku Chawan (Shokokuji collection), Photo courtesy of Benrido

Mr. Fujita: One of the concepts behinds this exhibition is “Communicating Kyoto through cultural assets.” The Mokuzo Bonten Zazo or Wooden Seated Statue of a Brahma deity is heavily tinted by its Indian influences, and the Taihi Tenmoku Chawan tea bowl was originally imported from China. These works of art give us a sense of just how international the city of Kyoto was from as early as the Middle Ages.

Another concept behind the exhibition is “Conveying the importance of handing down these cultural assets.” To draw forth the charm of these assets created over 1,000 years ago, they must be repaired and restored. This exhibition will also display footage designed to showcase these kinds of techniques as a way of deepening understanding about cultural assets and creating a sense of connection with them.

Important cultural property Gohyakurakanzu (Tofukuji collection) restoration work scene, Photo courtesy of Agency for Cultural Affairs

Kyoto City, a treasure trove of Japanese masterpieces

The masterpieces of Japanese art found in Kyoto are in no way confined to those housed in museums and galleries.

Inside the Myoshinji Temple, located near Ryoanji Temple (famed for its beautiful Japanese garden), is a decorative ceiling painting by 17th century painter, Kano Tan’yu. The powerful work featuring a dragon rampaging through the heavens is a monumental work that took eight long years to complete.

Another masterpiece is located within Chishakuin, a temple situated approximately 10 minutes by bus from JR Kyoto Station. Adorning the temple walls are paintings such as “Maple Tree” and “Pine Tree and Hollyhocks,” painted by Hasegawa Tohaku and his apprentices in the 16th century. These works, characterized by dynamically placed trees and glittering gold, are truly a symbol of Japanese art history.

This, then, is Kyoto, a city that is home to masterpieces of Japanese fine arts — arts that have developed along their own unique path over a period of more than 1,000 years, absorbing culture from China and various other countries over the years. Direct your footsteps here, and find the essence of Japanese fine arts in the tranquil atmosphere of the art museums and in the shrine and temple grounds cloaked in history.

Kyoto | Japan Travel | JNTO

Kyoto National Museum

Address: 527 Chaya-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto

Hosomi Museum

Address: 6-3 Okazaki Saishoji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto

The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto

Address: 26-1, Okazaki Enshoji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto

Kyoto City KYOCERA Museum of Art (Kyoto City Museum of Art)

Address: 124 Okazaki Enshoji-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto

Kyoto National Treasure — To Protect and Convey Japanese Treasure

Period: April 28 (Tues.) – June 21 (Sun.), 2020

Venue: Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art (Kyoto City Museum of Art)

Opening hours: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (last entry 5:30 p.m.)

Admission fee: General admission 1,500 yen