The kacho-e, or the bird and flower genre of Japanese woodblock prints, followed on from a long and well known tradition in Chinese painting. In China, birds and flowers ranked along with landscapes and human figures as one of the main elements of artists through the centuries. Keeping in mind the great favour in which Chinese culture was viewed in Japan, it is not surprising that Japanese painters also turned their attention so frequently to the depiction of this same subject matter. Chinese printmaking though served a fundamentally different purpose from that of their later Japanese counterparts. In China, examples were used in artistic manuals as models for aspiring artists to emulate whereas in Japan, kacho-e prints were produced and enjoyed for their own sake. Painting remains the preferred artistic expression in Japan, practiced by amateurs and professionals alike.
Meanings and symbolism
There are many and varies symbolisms of birds in Japan including longevity, luck, love, freedom, nobility, fertility, and bravery to name just a few.
Of the many birds that have found most favour among Japanese history and culture, the crane, the rooster and the owl are very famous. Of these, the ‘tsuru’ or crane is possibly the most sacred bird of Japan. It has been revered in Japanese folktales, drawings, origami, kimono patterns, and in all kinds of arts, throughout history.
Interestingly as an aside though, the green pheasant (Phasianus versicolor), also known as the Japanese green pheasant is the official national bird of Japan and is native to the Japanese archipelago.
Inspiration to those who followed
Japanese printmaking was one of Vincent Van Gogh’s main sources of inspiration and he became an enthusiastic collector and it is said the prints taught him a new way of looking at the world.
At the end of the 19th century, Impressionism was greatly influenced by Japanese art. Japanese prints are characterized by their elaborate patterns, communal subject matter, unusual perspectives and lack of chiaroscuro or depth. Beginning in the 1860's Japanese woodblock prints became a source of inspiration for many Western artists who were intrigued by the original use of color and composition in these works
Our personal favourite
Ohara Koson (1878-1945) is one of the most famous artists in the genre of “Bird-and-flower painting” of the twentieth century. In fact, his real name is Ohara Mata and during his career he changed his name several times: Koson, Shoson, Hosono – all are the names of the same artist who produced over 500 pieces of art. He was active designing prints until at least 1935, and died at his home in Tokyo in 1945.
Many hundreds of years later we still hold birds in such majesty and never tire of the sight of an Egret, Heron or the like taking flight, effortlessly gliding to a stop or simply standing guard in a wetland.
We hope you got a taste for the beauty of Japanese bird art and enjoyed our blog post.