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Japanese painting: The Yamato-e school

Translated as 'Japanese pictures', the term Yamato-e is used broadly to distinguish Japanese pictures from Kara-e ('Chinese pictures'), or it can be used to describe works which through their subject matter and style represent native Japanese taste.

Continental painting methods reached Japan in the seventh and eighth centuries. Black outlines were filled with flat, bright colour with no shading. There was no formal system of spatial perspective: the closest objects were at the bottom of the painting, the most distant at the top. With some modifications this remained the basis for Japanese-style painting to the end of the nineteenth century. Chinese painting, particularly monochrome ink painting, evolved in different ways, producing over time clear distinctions between the two.

In the ninth century an Edokoro ('Imperial Painting Office') was established at the Kyoto court. It was run by the Kose school which also worked for Buddhist temples and there was little formal distinction between secular and religious painting. From the early fifteenth century, the hereditary Tosa school took over as official imperial painters in the Yamato-e style until the late nineteenth century.

The preferred Japanese subjects were scenes from the literary classics, famous places, the four seasons, festivals, ceremonies and monthly activities. Seasonal subjects became the mainstream of art, and also decorated 3-dimensional objects and textiles. Paintings were often inscribed with courtly waka (31-syllable poems). Hanging scroll paintings were reserved mainly for Buddhist subjects until the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Bands or banks of cloud linked unrelated scenes, or progressed a narrative. Gold was often used, combined with brilliant pigments to colour an increasingly delicate figure style in often static scenes. Elements of Yamato-e influenced almost all other later schools, such as Kanō, genre painting, Ukiyo-e and Rimpa.

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