Getting the Most out of That Art Exhibition Vol. 5. The Ornamental Excess of Jōmon Art – Another Kind of Japanese Beauty
When we refer to ‘the Japanese aesthetic’, we tend to think of the restrained simplicity of classical buildings such as the Katsura Imperial Villa or the pared-down wabi-sabi aesthetic of the tea ceremony. This Japanese aesthetic has come to be seen here in Japan as the polar opposite of a Western aesthetic, typified by, say, the Palace of Versailles with its extravagant ornamentation.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Nikkō’s Tōshōgū Shrine, with its elaborate decoration, was built at around the same time as Katsura Imperial Villa. In that sense, this level of ornamentation (which could even be considered excessive) should be accepted as another aspect of the Japanese aesthetic.
The comparison between Tōshōgū Shrine and Katsura Imperial Villa is much like comparing Itō Jakuchū’s extraordinarily detailed Dōshoku sai-e (Pictures of the Colourful Realm of Living Beings) with Buddhist monk Sengai Gibon’s monochromatic Zen-ga paintings; or Tarō Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun sculpture with Isamu Noguchi’s Akari light sculptures. Extravagance and simplicity may be contrasting aesthetics, but they each have their own lineage in Japanese art. Tracing that lineage back in time brings us alternatively to the ornateness of Jōmon art or the simplicity of Yayoi art.
In this context, we can see why Tarō Okamoto held Jōmon art in such high regard. In fact, had Tarō Okamoto not ‘discovered’ Jōmon earthenware at the Tokyo National Museum, perhaps these items of pottery would still be considered just as archaeological artifacts rather than as artworks in their own right.
Is there a connection between the current resurgence in popularity of the decoratively detailed works of Itō Jakuchū or Tarō Okamoto’s avant-garde whimsy and the sudden popularity of Jōmon art? Indeed, people in Japan nowadays seem to favour the ornate over the simple, making this the perfect moment for Tokyo National Museum’s special exhibition, JOMON: 10,000 Years of Prehistoric Art in Japan.
The Jōmon Period began around 11,000 B.C. and lasted some 10,000 years. Compared with the current Heisei Era of thirty years; the Edo Period of 260-odd years, or even with the roughly 1,000 year-long Yayoi Period, the Jōmon Period was extraordinarily long. This extended period of environmental and social stability seems to have created just the right conditions for the emergence and development of Jōmon earthenware.
The exhibition at the national museum is divided into six chapters. The first displays relatively unadorned items such as earthenware, stone axes and personal accessories. In the second chapter, items decorated with the braided rope pattern (that the name ‘Jōmon’ comes from) begin to appear. After that we come to items of earthenware with odd protuberances and weird and wonderful flame-like designs.
The creation of pieces like this that favour form over function can only take place when people’s lifestyles allow them time to spare. Several thousand years of abundance and stability led to this highly ornate style of decoration, which is achieved by adding pieces of clay to the surface of the vessel. Interestingly, during this period, this method of decoration appears to be unique to Jōmon Japan.
Vessel with flame-like ornamentation, a national treasure unearthed at the Sasayama site in Tōkamachi City, Niigata Prefecture, and normally on display at the Tōkamachi City Museum. Middle Jōmon period, 3000-2000 B.C. Photo by Ogawa Tadahiro.
Naturally, it wasn’t just that our forbears lived in times of social stability that enabled them to create these works; these were also uniquely creative people. This is evidenced by the displays in the third chapter of the exhibition, where Jōmon pottery is compared with pottery created across Europe and the rest of Asia during the same period.
Here, earthenware from the four major civilizations of China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as from Yayoi Period Japan, is gathered in one space. And the result of that comparison? Well, it would seem that while pottery from outside Japan does also feature decorative elements, the ornamentation is not excessive to the extent that it hinders the inherent function of the object. Excessive ornamentation, such as the flame-like decoration added to Jōmon pottery, appears to have been unique to Japan.
Jōmon pottery poses several riddles. Why go to the trouble of adding decoration that makes a vessel difficult to use? And why is it that this excessive ornamentation disappeared in the Yayoi Period when irrigated rice farming began? The fact that nobody can answer these questions definitively is what makes Jōmon pottery so fascinating.
In Chapters 4 and 5, we come to the dogū (clay figurines). Of the six Jōmon Period items that have been designated as national treasures, five are clay figurines, while the sixth is the flame-style pottery excavated at Tōkamachi in Niigata Prefecture, which comprises a set of fourteen pieces.
Prehistoric figurines depicting the female form, such as the Venus of Willendorf unearthed in Austria, generally emphasise the rounded forms of the breasts, hips and abdomen, suggesting a connection with fertility or abundant harvest. The first Jōmon Period artifact to have been designated as a national treasure was the plumply rounded clay figurine dubbed the Jōmon Venus.
Incidentally, Japan’s appreciation of Jōmon art is a very recent thing – the Jōmon Venus was not designated as a national treasure until 1995.
The Jōmon Venus, unearthed at the Tanabatake site in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, and normally displayed in Chino City’s Togariishi Museum of Jōmon Archaeology. Middle Jōmon period, 3000-2000 B.C. On display at the Tokyo National Museum from July 31 to Sept. 2
Among the many other dogū on display here are the Jōmon Goddess, with her clear-cut geometrical forms; the Masked Goddess with her massively sturdy legs and triangular face; the seated Gasshō Dogū, looking up at the sky, hands clasped in prayer, as well as the Dogū with Heart-Shaped Face and the Cylindrical Dogū, both of which must surely have been the inspiration for Tarō Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun sculpture. In addition to these, there are the curiously goggle-eyed Spaceman Dogū (whispered to have been modelled on aliens!).
With over two hundred earthenware vessels and figurines on display, this must be the most definitive collection of Jōmon art yet.
Left: Jōmon Goddess, a national treasure excavated from the Nishinomae site in Funagata, Yamagata Prefecture, and normally displayed in the Yamagata Prefectural Museum. Middle Jōmon period, 3000-2000 B.C. Right: Dogū with Heart-Shaped Face, an important cultural property excavated from Gobara in Higashi-Agatsuma, Gunma Prefecture. Late Jōmon Period, 2000-1000 B.C.
Shakōki-Dogū (Spaceman Figurine), an important cultural property, excavated at Kizukuri-Kamegaoka in Tsugaru City, Aomori Prefecture, and normally on display at the Tokyo National Museum. Final Jōmon Period, 1000-400 B.C.
While the richly varied facial features and styling of these figurines may be unsophisticated, to those of us accustomed to modern design, they appear fresh – perhaps even avant garde. I can even see how people might suggest that some of these figurines were modelled on aliens, or that they might even have been made by aliens!
In the final analysis, there is more to the Japanese aesthetic than just wabi-sabi and pared-back simplicity. Jōmon beauty, the earliest example of Japanese art, has its own place within that aesthetic and must be considered as yet another type of Japanese beauty.
JOMON: 10,000 Years of Prehistoric Art in Japan
Tokyo National Museum, Ueno, Tokyo
(This exhibition has now ended.)
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.