Explore / Articles

 

Japanese portraits

Japanese portraiture dates back to the seventh century AD. Until about the twelfth century, the subjects were primarily Buddhist monks. Only after this did secular portraiture emerge.

The earliest portraits followed Chinese prototypes of the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), with their illusion of volume. A similar sense of naturalism has also been apparent in western-influenced work since the late eighteenth century. However, Japanese native taste has traditionally favoured flat decorative surfaces, as seen in a number of surviving paintings from the late Heian period (AD 794-1185) onwards.

There is also a marked difference between Japanese and Western approaches to the resemblance of portrait to subject. In Japanese culture, external appearance was not thought generally to express that person's individuality. Also, since most religious and official 'portraits' were painted some time after the subject's death, only an appropriate formal image was required, identified by adding the subject's name. However, this approach is not so marked in portraits of the Kamakura period (AD 1185-1333). In the portrait of Minamoto Yoritomo, his face is painted with delicate detail, and is clearly differentiated from other sitters in works of the same period.

In the Ukiyo-e school naturalism is relatively unimportant. Utamaro's idealized bijin ('beautiful women') almost all have tiny mouths, straight noses and well-marked eyebrows in perfectly oval faces. Yet there is subtle differentiation: Ohisa is always recognizable by her slightly close-set eyes, and Okita by her aquiline nose. The Katsukawa school of actor print-makers and Sharaku consciously produced revealing portraits, though one account suggests that Sharaku's prints were too realistic to appeal to his public.

Among painters of the newer schools who often sketched from life, Maruyama ōkyo (1733-95) experimented with more realistic portraiture. However, when a western-style painter of the Meiji era, Takahashi Yūichi (1828-94), produced a coolly objective portrait in oils of the courtesan Koine, she burst into tears, crying 'That's not me!'

Shop Online

Word into Art, £16.99

Word into Art, £16.99