Throughout centuries, Japan was considered as one of the strongest countries among Asia in terms of modernization and cultural development. The history of Japan is often being studied by many scholars to determine the factors influencing its development, and some of these influential factors came from Western countries. Although the accurate time period of beginning of Western influences on Japanese culture is ambiguous due to different aspects of historical records, it can be asserted that the Japanese artists were under Western influences towards the end of Edo period, which was around late 19th century. According to Danielle, the Western artistic styles were introduced to the Japanese artists despite the isolationist policies, and “new Western-inspired artistic styles were incorporated into Japanese artwork effectively producing a novel and popular artistic tradition.” The Japanese maps and other paintings created during the Edo period often served to show how the Western influence had affected the traditional Japanese drawing styles.
The map, “Edo meisho no e,” was created by Kuwagata, Shoshin in 1803, and as the title suggests, the map is depicting the bird’s eye panoramic view of Edo city from the direction of Honjo during the Edo period. According to Kornicki, a professor of Japanese arts and literature in Cambridge university, suggested that the map’s bold composition fits the entire view of the city on a single page, along with wealth of information about noted spots. He also asserted that from the map illustration, it is evident that Edo was a city of water and greenery that made ingenious use of its river and ocean resources.
Before analyzing the influence of Western techniques on the map, it is crucial to study the historical background of Edo period to understand how the Japanese artists were able to interact with the Western drawing techniques. The term, Edo period, is used to describe the period between 1603 and 1868 in Japan, when the Tokugawa shogunate was ruling the society. During this period, the Japanese society underwent constant economic growth, resulting in stable economy as well as population. The economic development included “urbanization, increased shipping of commodities, a significant expansion of domestic and, initially, foreign commerce, and a diffusion of trade and handicraft industries.” As a result, many Japanese scholars and artists were able to learn about Western sciences and techniques through the abundant information and books brought from Dutch traders. These Western sciences and techniques rapidly influenced many Japanese cultures including art, natural sciences, medicine, and so on. Among many areas that were influenced by Western cultures, perhaps the Japanese arts were most influenced by Western drawing techniques. After the exposure of Western drawing techniques to the Japanese artists, many Japanese artists began to incorporate their drawings with the Western techniques, evolving to a new artistic tradition in Japan. In other words, according to Department of Asian Art, the Japanese artists were “exposed to European artistic styles and began to fuse European and Japanese techniques to produce landscape ukiyo-e, which were eagerly consumed by the Japanese public.” This suggests that the Western techniques naturally assimilated with the traditional Japanese drawing techniques. The influence of Western techniques enabled the Japanese artists to illustrate their drawings without being limited to the traditional Japanese artistic styles.
Since the map was created during the Edo period, its drawing style must have been influenced by the Western techniques. The two techniques that were relatively easy to find were the horizontal picture plane technique and the incorporation of the pigment, Berlin blue. The creator had used the horizontal technique to depict the panoramic view of Edo city so it can have wider spans of landscape. Also, the Fuji mountain in the center of the map is naturally drawing particular attention because of the influence of horizontal technique. The ‘Berlin blue’ pigment was used to illustrate the mountains and rivers or ocean in the map. Although it is quite difficult to reveal the creator’s motives on using Western techniques, it can be asserted that the creator was trying to cope with the new artistic tradition as it was favored by the Japanese public. To elaborate further about these Western techniques, the ‘ukiyo-e’ paintings can be used as an example to illustrate the Western influences on Japanese drawing styles.
The term, ukiyo-e, is used to describe the paintings and woodblock prints that are mainly portraying “the transitory world of the licensed pleasure quarters, the theater and pleasure quarters of Edo, present-day Tokyo, Japan.” The transition of ukiyo-e drawing styles can be observed in the Edo period since the ‘ukiyo-e’ paintings can be differentiated by before and after the Western influences. Before the Japanese artists were exposed to the Western techniques, most of ‘ukiyo-e’ paintings contained images of figures such as kabuki actors or female beauties, and their inspirations often came from everyday lives. After the influence of Western techniques, however, the depicting images of everyday lives started to change into depicting the conventional landscape images and images of named places instead of portraying figures. As the illustration of ‘ukiyo-e’ drawings shifted from figures to landscapes, there were two notable Western techniques used by the Japanese artists, which were the horizontal picture plane technique and the incorporation of the pigment, Berlin blue.
The foremost popular Western technique used by the Japanese artists during the Edo period was called horizontal picture plane technique. As the name suggests, the technique was involved with the orientation of painting where the artists drew paintings horizontally, rather than drawing vertically. The ‘ukiyo-e’ paintings which became popular during the Edo period were supported by the artisans and merchants, also known as chônin. Since these patrons preferred the paintings that reflected their diverse tastes and pursuit of leisure, the everyday lives and activities of Japanese urban residents were generally depicted in the ‘ukiyo-e’ paintings. Most of the ‘ukiyo-e’ paintings during the early Edo period, for example, contained vertically-oriented images of kabuki actors and courtesans dressed in the contemporary fashions of the period. However, these vertical drawings depicting figures slowly started to disappear toward the end of Edo period as the horizontal technique was introduced. As Danielle asserted, during the early 1800’s, the Japanese artists such as Katushika Hokusai “promoted return of the new ukiyo-e tradition to the depiction of conventional landscape images that had been popular amongst earlier styles of Japanese art.” The introduction of Western horizontal technique allowed the Japanese artists to draw wider spans of landscape in their depictions as well as to draw particular attention to certain features or points in the drawing.
Another Western technique that influenced the depiction of ‘ukiyo-e’ paintings was the incorporation of the pigment, Berlin blue. Although it needs to be validated, some researches claimed that the pigment was first created by an accident in a Western chemical factory. The Japanese public was attracted by this pigment because it was a vivid and artificially-produced dye. Also, the introduction of this pigment indicated the end of using traditional colors that were usually created with the natural minerals. During the end of Edo period after the Western pigment was introduced, the ‘Berlin blue’ pigment was used in almost every Japanese painting, not only limited to ukiyo-e.
To summarize, the map, “Edo meisho no e,” is depicting the panoramic view of Edo city with the focus on Fuji mountain by using the Western drawing techniques called the horizontal picture plane and the incorporation of the pigment, Berlin blue. As mentioned above, the influence of Western techniques had a huge impact on the traditional Japanese drawing styles during the Edo period, and many Japanese artists tended to incorporate their drawings with the Western techniques in order to keep up with the modernization. Because of the Western techniques used on the map, the map was able to illustrate more areas with details and the color of river or ocean gave the sense of calm to its viewers. The focus of Fuji mountain in the center of the map can be seen as the absolute power of Tokugawa shogunate at that time because Fuji mountain was often a symbol of Japan.
Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm. (Accessed March 6, 2018).
Guth, Christine. Art of Edo Japan: The Artist and the City 1615-1868. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996
Hall, John Whitney. 1988. “Early Modern Japan.” The Cambridge History of Japan 4 (1988): 369-370.
Khanacademy. “The Evolution of Ukiyo-e and Woodblock Prints.” Khanacademy Art of Asia: Edo Period, Japan. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/art-japan/edo-period/a/the-evolution-of-ukiyo-e-and-woodblock-prints. (Accessed March 7, 2018).
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Contributor: Yunkee Kim
Published April 23, 2018