Nuance in Nature
Bird-and-flower imagery is part of a long and evolving design tradition in Japan. The Japanese reverence for the natural world has its roots in ancient Chinese belief systems that mixed with the animism of Japan’s indigenous Shintō religion and the later influence of Buddhist practices from India and China. A vocabulary of literary and visual symbols based on observation of nature from an aesthetic standpoint came to the fore during the Heian period (794-1185). Birds and flowers became the most popular design motifs for cloth during the Muromachi (1338-1573) and Momoyama (1573-1603) periods and provided a rich and complex stock of motifs originating from Heian poetry and courtly traditions.
Since first becoming part of Japan’s cultural awareness, these designs have been used to mark auspicious events, celebrate the turn of the seasons, indicate rank and nobility, and manifest beauty and refinement. They are fully understood by the entire society and bestow poetry and magic upon the textiles associated with ritual and folk practices and celebrations such as the turning of the lunar new year and weddings, as well as everyday dress.
Japanese textiles integrate both abstract and figurative elements, and the resulting designs are narrative in quality. Japanese art carries as clear a message and meaning as written language. Like kanji, the Chinese characters that are part of written Japanese language, the visual elements combined in a textile design communicate much more than the mere objects they mimic. This results in a remarkable ability to use complex ideas as the basis for compositions on textiles that are clear in meaning, strikingly rendered, and powerful.
The Japanese use of a character-based (kanji) language would seem to have influenced the art and design culture, enhancing the richness of meaning the Japanese extract from visual symbols on clothing and textiles.
Unlike in the West, there are no hierarchical distinctions among the arts in Japan. The artist who designs cloth was and is the equivalent in status of a master ceramist or painter.