Nature played an important role in the history of Chinese and Japanese art. Many factors influenced the use of nature in these art forms. During the northern Sung Dynasty, the Emperor officially announced nature as the only subject worthy of painting (ICS 5 Class Lecture Notes). All the paintings were done in the formal hanging scroll format. Artists used dark colors as the backbone of the paintings so it would make it easier to hang them. Artists did not use the reality of the nature but created abstraction of the reality in their paintings. During this period, all the scholar painters used to live a subsidized life. They would paint for the Emperor and obtain necessities from him in return. Because of this, they did not have to look for other means of making money. Hence they could concentrate on their paintings. All the scholar artists would go out, live in the nature, and depend on it to gain ideas for their paintings. I believe that this was also a significant reason why nature and landscape were used a lot in their paintings. A good example of this is Fan Kuan’s painting “Travelers on a Mountain Path”. We can see a clear rational view of the nature in this painting. It is called the clear rational picture because as an audience if you put your self in the painting you can actually find your way through. Confucius emphasized on people to use their rational mind (Catalyst Review Slides). Rationality in painting is where you can have a clear rational landscape. Frequently, artists would not show the whole view in their painting because they wanted the audience to use their imagination in order to figure out the rest. In this painting, Kuan is using a lot of brushstrokes to show the mountains, waterfall, trees and rivers. These brushstrokes were meticulous because artist would take years to finish this kind of painting. These paintings were done on silk, so the artists were not able to erase their mistakes. Therefore they had to think a lot and make sure that they do it right.
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Nature also played a big role in the religious beliefs of the Chinese. During the southern Sung Dynasty, Chinese believed in Taoist cosmology, which expresses Yin and Yang energy in the universe. Yin is for feminine and was represented by water and Yang is for masculine and was represented by mountains and they come to gather in the painting. Artists made the paintings, which were intuitive, suggestive, and rapid. Taoism and Chinese culture had a special meaning for mountains. In Mandarin, a word that translates to ‘Landscape’ means mountains and water (Catalyst Lecture Notes). This is why I believe Chinese artists used mountains and different forms of water, such as rivers, waterfalls, streams, mist, and clouds, in their paintings to show the landscape. The landscape the artist would show would be very misty. You can notice this in Ma Yuan’s painting “Bare Willows and Distant Mountains”. Even during the Yuan Dynasty, nature was being used in the paintings because the scholar painter established their residency in the mountains. They were in harmony with the nature, which I believe must have influenced their paintings.
Japanese painters also used nature in their art, but they had their own style. They used the multiple panels of paintings with real 24k gold in the background. Hasegaua’s “Initial stages of the Summer Siege” is an important example of this. “Winter Landscape” by Sesshu is also a good example of the use of landscape by the Japanese artists. The painting is used to show how Zen Buddhist monks would connect to the universe via meditation. It is completely abstract. I also believe that the artist is making a strong statement about winter and coldness in this painting. He is using very thick, black, and sharp brushstrokes to match the weather. Japanese used woodblock prints in their art. It is different from painting. They used a special method to make these prints. Japanese artists used nature even in the woodblock prints. Hokusai is showing one of the 36 different views of Mount Fuji in his woodblock print “Under The Wave Off Kanagawa Point”. Hokusai tries to freeze the most dramatic movement in time, which you can see in this print when you see the frozen wave. In both Chinese and Japanese cultures, the inspiration of nature is remarkably apparent. I believe that in Asian art landscape painting shows the relationship between humans and nature. Asian artists used water and mountains in their paintings to show the harmony in nature. We could see nature in all of the Asian paintings.
The use of nature was also carried over by the Asian American artists. The first Asian immigrants who migrated to United States often faced poverty in their homeland but came to United States with a hope of a better life (Catalyst Notes). The majority of them came to California. The Chinese were among the first Asians to come to United States. Among the Chinese emigrants there were talented artists who had the training in the classic Eastern art techniques. They had come with the curiosity about the Western art. These artists later enrolled in the western art training centers like the California School of Fine Arts. The Japanese arrived in the United States later. The Japanese also made significant artistic contributions to California’s art. When the Asian artists arrived to the United States they had to make some adjustments. They did not have a subsidized way of living in the United States. Instead, they had to find other means of making money to support their living. Chiura Obata is one of the Japanese artists, who came to the United States in 1903 and settled in San Francisco. He was one of the lucky ones who had found a teaching job at U C Berkeley. I would like to use Chiura Obata’s experiences, after coming to the United States, to show how the use of nature was transferred from Asian artists to Asian American artists. When Obata came to America, his paintings were done on silk and it contained landscapes. He used classic Japanese brush painting and combined it with western art. He did some water colors and ink sketches. He used his Japanese art to portray California’s landscape. In his painting “Monterey Coast”, we can see lots of brush stroke movements were used to show the waves. You could never see the use of shadow in Asian art, but Obata learned about the shadow in the paintings at the western artists’ exhibition. We can see him use his new technique of shadow in his painting “Monterey Coast”. He was also very fond of Yosemite’s nature. He did lots of paintings about Yosemite. Obata was a master of Sumi-e art. The Sumi-e art is a style of ink brush painting. Obata also did his most famous work of woodblock prints woodblock prints, which was titled “World Landscape Series”-America. Obata was one of the Asian American artists, who used the original Asian art with landscapes and nature and added that to the American art.
World War II had a major influence on Asian artists and their views about art. All the artists turned to their personal experiences and beliefs for inspiration instead of looking at nature. They still used nature in their paintings but it served as a visual diary of people’s daily life at the relocation center. In 1940s, during the World War II, Obata and his family along with other 100,000 Japanese Americans moved to the inlands from the west coast. He was sent to the relocation camp in Tanforan at first and than to Topaz, Utah. While he was in camp he made about hundred sketches and paintings. He started an art school in Topaz, which had about 600 students. His painting “Silent Moonlight at Tanforan” is a good example of the artists’ experiences at the relocation center. In this painting he is showing the horse stables where people had to live. I think in this painting he is also using the colors to show the emotions of the people. The Moon is shown very thin and covered with cloud. He is trying to express depression among the people. He also did some drawings and paintings of landscape and sky that gave sense of isolation, determination and alienation. During the time of WWII Japanese artists used their Asian art to show their experiences, which still contained nature. Due to internment, Japanese American artists had lost their livelihood and their occupations after their release and it was portrayed in lot of the artwork. The artists were completely transformed because of their internment experience.
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By the end of World War II, the Western world and California had fallen a part from all artistic traditions. Modern, abstract art got added to the Western world. Many of the California Asian artists did abstract painting. By this time the artists started using urban landscape instead of a land landscape. They would take all the ordinary things and turn them in to very special compositions. They did this even in the woodblock prints. “Old Car” by Wah Ming Chang is a good example of this. Asian artists started using watercolors in their paintings. You can see this in the “San Francisco Chinatown” by Yun Gee. He is using more bright colors like Western artist in this painting. He is trying to be revolutionary by experimenting very bright and intense colors.
In early 1990s there was an increase in Asian American art activity, which brought national attention to Asian American art (Fresh Talk Daring Gazes, pg.22). A group of English speaking young Asian Americans had emerged. During the 1980s and 1990s the use of nature in art became less important. The young Asian American artists started designing their art to reflect and accommodate the migratory experiences of the Asian emigrants. As Elaine Kim states in her book “Fresh Talk Daring Gazes”, all the problems that Asian American society faces needed to come out for discussion. One of the good examples about this is artist Pacita Abad’s painting called “I Thought The Streets were Lined with Gold”. In this painting she has stuffed lot of pictures with sequences and other things. She is trying to show how Filipinos and Asian emigrants came to the United States with high hopes, but the actual experiences at their arrival were very different. They had to take up all the low paying jobs like childcare, day labor, nursing etc. In another art “Framing An American Identity” by Tommie Arai, the artist is showing the small passport size pictures to show their personal identity. Arai is trying to explore the identity of those people who have a different self-identity. There are other images in the background, which represents the real identity of those people. I believe that in this picture Arai is trying to show that identity is not fixed or original essence, but it is flowing and changeable to balance all the experiences and places lived. It is very true that people had to recreate their identity once they came to the United States. Artist Sung Ho Choi is using the theme of the American flag as a target in her art called “American Pie”. It is about American experiences of all the Asian emigrants with Government, job markets, and the segregation of people etc. She is using the Korean newspaper articles and each article represents the horror stories of the emigrants. The US flag represents the freedom. All of these images together represent the goals and the American dreams that all the immigrants had. We can see how the use of nature became less important over time and vanished out of the Asian American paintings. . They geared their artworks towards showing the life experiences of the emigrants and the struggles they had to go through when they came to the United States.
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