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The Jomon Period: Modern Japanese art with ancient beginnings

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Japanese art has a quality all its own. The ancient and the avant-garde merge. Prehistoric figurines seem 10,000 years deep rather than 10,000 years old. And modern art takes us back even as it propels us forward. Manga, for instance, predates its name by centuries — millennia even, you might suppose, gazing at those prehistoric Jomon figurines.

Japan’s opening to the West, beginning in the 1850s, was simultaneously the West’s opening to Japan — via Japanese art. “Japonaiserie” is the term coined by Vincent Van Gogh to express his and his fellow-Impressionists’ awed appreciation. “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art,” Van Gogh wrote in 1888. Japanese of that time would have been shocked to hear it. Westernization fever was upon them. They little valued their own ancient masterpieces. They regarded them as backward. The future — in art as in industry, science, commerce and politics — lay, they thought, with the West.

Japonaiserie lives today. The magazine Pen, introducing its beautifully illustrated survey of Japanese art, cites as evidence current exhibitions in Paris and Moscow. It does not say whether they include Jomon pottery and figurines. They are incomplete if they do not.

There is nothing quite like Jomon Japan. Later Japanese culture made much of the transience and mutability of all things, but the Jomon Period (circa 10,000 B.C. to circa 300 B.C.) is as close to changelessness as life and culture get. Its hunting-gathering economy must have satisfied it. Its continuity over thousands of years, its failure to progress to agriculture, is unaccountable otherwise.

Before 1877 no Japanese so much as suspected the existence of such ancestors. The key discovery was made by an American, Edward Sylvester Morse (1838-1925). He was a biologist, and had come to Japan to research a kind of shelled worm known as brachiopods. Traveling from Yokohama to Tokyo, he looked out the train window and saw a heap of shells. He recognized it at once as a prehistoric kitchen midden, a trash dump. What treasures might it conceal? He returned a few days later — it was just outside the village of Omori — and began digging. Among the shells were shards of pottery, curiously marked with a rope-like pattern. Art? Yes indeed.

The word “jomon” means “rope pattern.” Morse’s discovery represents the beginning of Japanese archaeology.

Pen takes the story from there. The pottery figurines unearthed first at Omori and subsequently all over the archipelago added whole new dimensions to the word “ancient” — but who cared? Archaeologists and historians, not artists. Art is what we’re taught to regard as art, until someone breaks the mold and forces us to look again. The iconoclast in this case is artist Taro Okamoto (1911-96). Returning to Japan in 1951 after a stint in Paris, he was awed by Jomon artifacts at the Tokyo National Museum. This, he thought, was more than mere archaeology. This was beauty. “At last,” Pen says, “the origin of Japanese beauty” received its due recognition.

Jomon figurines, known as dogū, have a prevailing theme, unvarying over thousands of years: pregnant women. They are fertility symbols, experts suppose — desperate appeals, perhaps, to spirits too primitive to be called gods to keep death at bay and nurture life. Death won most of the battles — few newborns survived childhood — but life won the war.

The impossibility of penetrating the minds of these proto-artists heightens, for us, the beauty of their creations. Here, for example, is “Jomon Venus,” circa 3000 B.C., the swelling belly revealing her condition, but what is the expression on her face expressing? Awe? Bafflement? Fear? Serenity? You could make a case for any of those, and probably numerous other possibilities besides. Her junior by some 2,000 years is a woman scarcely recognizable as such. Her eyes look like ski goggles. Was the artist incompetent? Or conveying a reality long lost to us?

An inconceivable future lay ahead. Millennia pass. The next great phase of Japanese art is Buddhist. Monks in meditation, bodhisattvas radiating other-worldly enlightenment, the Buddha entering nirvana — such are the themes of the art of the seventh to the 13th centuries A.D. What would Jomon men and women make of it, should a breach in the law of mortality afford them a glimpse? Would they see in it dogū by another name — a higher stage, perhaps? Or would they say something like, “This is more refined, more polished, technically more advanced, but our art was rawer, earthier, more honest, more living”? And what would a Buddha-inspired artist have said of dogū?

Thumbing through Pen’s photographs, we seem to see, as the centuries unfold, every genre of art there is: religious and secular, landscape and portraiture, realism and fantasy, ugliness and beauty. It is remote, and yet near. If dogū themselves are not prototypes of modern manga — and it’s hard not to see a connection — then what about the 17th-century grotesque “god of wind and god of thunder?” Is their laughter amused? Enraged? Mad?

No, assuredly we can trace manga farther back than them — at least to a 12th-century scroll called “Choju Jimbutsu Giga” (“Animal-person Caricatures”). “Japan’s (culture of) kawaii began with animals,” Pen notes. Animals and priests, it might have said, for here are frog-headed, cat-headed, rabbit-headed priests, their formal headgear presumably a stab at preserving what little dignity they have left. They stand on two legs but are claw-toed. Whoever the artists were (the plural is presumed; their identity unknown), they saw priests as figures of fun and were not afraid to say so.

Manga prehistory aside, its history may be said to begin with the painter and woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), famous above all for his “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” and “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” but producer as well of 15 volumes of drawings known as manga (random sketches). They were pedagogical exercises — Hokusai’s aim in creating them was to teach ordinary people to draw.

Humans, flora, fauna, scenery — Hokusai drew everything; everything he saw was grist for his inexhaustible mill. Shunga (erotic art) tempted him less than it did some of his contemporaries, but even this genre he couldn’t resist altogether, and thus we find included in Pen’s collection his “Girl Diver and Octopuses” — two octopuses, at the sexual service of a nude pearl diver. What, we wonder, would a Jomon dogū artist have made of that?

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.