The history of Asian art or Eastern art, includes a vast range of influences from various cultures and religions. Developments in Asian art historically parallel those in Western art, in general a few centuries earlier. Chinese art, Indian art, Korean art, Japanese art, each had significant influence on Western art, and, vice versa. Near Eastern art also had a significant influence on Western art. Excluding prehistoric art, the art of Mesopotamia represents the oldest forms of Asian art.
Buddhist art originated in the Indian subcontinent in the centuries following the life of the historical Gautama Buddha in the 6th to 5th century BCE, before evolving through its contact with other cultures and its diffusion through the rest of Asia and the world. Buddhist art traveled with believers as the dharma spread, adapted, and evolved in each new host country. It developed to the north through Central Asia and into Eastern Asia to form the Northern branch of Buddhist art, and to the east as far as Southeast Asia to form the Southern branch of Buddhist art. In India, Buddhist art flourished and even influenced the development of Hindu art, until Buddhism nearly disappeared in India around the 10th century CE due in part to the vigorous expansion of Islam alongside Hinduism.
A common visual device in Buddhist art is the mandala. From a viewer's perspective, it represents schematically the ideal universe. In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. Its symbolic nature can help one "to access progressively deeper levels of the unconscious, ultimately assisting the meditator to experience a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises." The psychoanalyst Carl Jung saw the mandala as "a representation of the center of the unconscious self," and believed his paintings of mandalas enabled him to identify emotional disorders and work towards wholeness in personality.
The major orders of Buddhism in Bhutan are Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma. The former is a branch of the Kagyu School and is known for paintings documenting the lineage of Buddhist masters and the 70 Je Khenpo (leaders of the Bhutanese monastic establishment). The Nyingma order is known for images of Padmasambhava, who is credited with introducing Buddhism into Bhutan in the 7th century. According to legend, Padmasambhava hid sacred treasures for future Buddhist masters, especially Pema Lingpa, to find. The treasure finders (tertön) are also frequent subjects of Nyingma art.
Each divine being is assigned special shapes, colors, and/or identifying objects, such as lotus, conch-shell, thunderbolt, and begging bowl. All sacred images are made to exact specifications that have remained remarkably unchanged for centuries.
Bhutanese art is particularly rich in bronzes of different kinds that are collectively known by the name Kham-so (made in Kham) even though they are made in Bhutan, because the technique of making them was originally imported from the eastern province of Tibet called Kham. Wall paintings and sculptures, in these regions, are formulated on the principal ageless ideals of Buddhist art forms. Even though their emphasis on detail is derived from Tibetan models, their origins can be discerned easily, despite the profusely embroidered garments and glittering ornaments with which these figures are lavishly covered. In the grotesque world of demons, the artists apparently had a greater freedom of action than when modeling images of divine beings.
The arts and crafts of Bhutan that represents the exclusive “spirit and identity of the Himalayan kingdom’ is defined as the art of Zorig Chosum, which means the “thirteen arts and crafts of Bhutan”; the thirteen crafts are carpentry, painting, paper making, blacksmithery, weaving, sculpting and many other crafts. The Institute of Zorig Chosum in Thimphu is the premier institution of traditional arts and crafts set up by the Government of Bhutan with the sole objective of preserving the rich culture and tradition of Bhutan and training students in all traditional art forms; there is another similar institution in eastern Bhutan known as Trashi Yangtse. Bhutanese rural life is also displayed in the ‘Folk Heritage Museum’ in Thimphu. There is also a ‘Voluntary Artists Studio’ in Thimphu to encourage and promote the art forms among the youth of Thimphu. The thirteen arts and crafts of Bhutan and the institutions established in Thimphu to promote these art forms are:
Cambodian art and the culture of Cambodia has had a rich and varied history dating back many centuries and has been heavily influenced by India. In turn, Cambodia greatly influenced Thailand, Laos and vice versa. Throughout Cambodia's long history, a major source of inspiration was from religion. Throughout nearly two millennium, a Cambodians developed a unique Khmer belief from the syncreticism of indigenous animistic beliefs and the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Indian culture and civilization, including its language and arts reached mainland Southeast Asia around the 1st century CE. It is generally believed that seafaring merchants brought Indian customs and culture to ports along the gulf of Thailand and the Pacific while trading with China. The first state to benefit from this was Funan. At various times, Cambodia culture also absorbed elements from Javanese, Chinese, Lao, and Thai cultures.
The history of Visual arts of Cambodia stretches back centuries to ancient crafts; Khmer art reached its peak during the Angkor period. Traditional Cambodian arts and crafts include textiles, non-textile weaving, silversmithing, stone carving, lacquerware, ceramics, wat murals, and kite-making. Beginning in the mid-20th century, a tradition of modern art began in Cambodia, though in the later 20th century both traditional and modern arts declined for several reasons, including the killing of artists by the Khmer Rouge. The country has experienced a recent artistic revival due to increased support from governments, NGOs, and foreign tourists.
Khmer sculpture refers to the stone sculpture of the Khmer Empire, which ruled a territory based on modern Cambodia, but rather larger, from the 9th to the 13th century. The most celebrated examples are found in Angkor, which served as the seat of the empire.
By the 7th century, Khmer sculpture begins to drift away from its Hindu influences – pre-Gupta for the Buddhist figures, Pallava for the Hindu figures – and through constant stylistic evolution, it comes to develop its own originality, which by the 10th century can be considered complete and absolute. Khmer sculpture soon goes beyond religious representation, which becomes almost a pretext in order to portray court figures in the guise of gods and goddesses. But furthermore, it also comes to constitute a means and end in itself for the execution of stylistic refinement, like a kind of testing ground. We have already seen how the social context of the Khmer kingdom provides a second key to understanding this art. But we can also imagine that on a more exclusive level, small groups of intellectuals and artists were at work, competing among themselves in mastery and refinement as they pursued a hypothetical perfection of style.
The gods we find in Khmer sculpture are those of the two great religions of India, Buddhism and Hinduism. And they are always represented with great iconographic precision, clearly indicating that learned priests supervised the execution of the works. Nonetheless, unlike those Hindu images which repeat an idealized stereotype, these images are treated with great realism and originality because they depict living models: the king and his court. The true social function of Khmer art was, in fact, the glorification of the aristocracy through these images of the gods embodied in the princes. In fact, the cult of the “deva-raja” required the development of an eminently aristocratic art in which the people were supposed to see the tangible proof of the sovereign’s divinity, while the aristocracy took pleasure in seeing itself – if, it’s true, in idealized form – immortalized in the splendour of intricate adornments, elegant dresses and extravagant jewelry.
The sculptures are admirable images of a gods, royal and imposing presences, though not without feminine sensuality, makes us think of important persons at the courts, persons of considerable power. The artists who sculpted the stones doubtless satisfied the primary objectives and requisites demanded by the persons who commissioned them. The sculptures represent the chosen divinity in the orthodox manner and succeeds in portraying, with great skill and expertise, high figures of the courts in all of their splendour, in the attire, adornments and jewelry of a sophisticated beauty.
Chinese art (Chinese: 中國藝術/中国艺术) has varied throughout its ancient history, divided into periods by the ruling dynasties of China and changing technology. Different forms of art have been influenced by great philosophers, teachers, religious figures and even political leaders. Chinese art encompasses fine arts, folk arts and performance arts. Chinese art is art, whether modern or ancient, that originated in or is practiced in China or by Chinese artists or performers.
In the Song Dynasty, poetry was marked by a lyric poetry known as Ci (詞) which expressed feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona. Also in the Song dynasty, paintings of more subtle expression of landscapes appeared, with blurred outlines and mountain contours which conveyed distance through an impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. It was during this period that in painting, emphasis was placed on spiritual rather than emotional elements, as in the previous period. Kunqu, the oldest extant form of Chinese opera developed during the Song Dynasty in Kunshan, near present-day Shanghai. In the Yuan dynasty, painting by the Chinese painter Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫) greatly influenced later Chinese landscape painting, and the Yuan dynasty opera became a variant of Chinese opera which continues today as Cantonese opera.
Indian art can be classified into specific periods, each reflecting certain religious, political and cultural developments. The earliest examples are the petroglyphs such as those found in Bhimbetka, some of them dating to before 5500 BC. The production of such works continued for several millenniums. Later examples include the carved pillars of Ellora, Maharashtra state. Other examples are the frescoes of Ajanta and Ellora Caves.
The visual arts (sculpture, painting and architecture) are tightly interrelated with the non-visual arts. According to Kapila Vatsyayan, "Classical Indian architecture, sculpture, painting, literature (kaavya), music and dancing evolved their own rules conditioned by their respective media, but they shared with one another not only the underlying spiritual beliefs of the Indian religio-philosophic mind, but also the procedures by which the relationships of the symbol and the spiritual states were worked out in detail."
Insight into the unique qualities of Indian art is best achieved through an understanding of the philosophical thought, the broad cultural history, social, religious and political background of the artworks.
Indonesian art and culture has been shaped by long interaction between original indigenous customs and multiple foreign influences. Indonesia is central along ancient trading routes between the Far East and the Middle East, resulting in many cultural practices being strongly influenced by a multitude of religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam, all strong in the major trading cities. The result is a complex cultural mixture very different from the original indigenous cultures. Indonesia is not generally known for paintings, aside from the intricate and expressive Balinese paintings, which often express natural scenes and themes from the traditional dances.
Other exceptions include indigenous Kenyah paint designs based on, as commonly found among Austronesian cultures, endemic natural motifs such as ferns, trees, dogs, hornbills and human figures. These are still to be found decorating the walls of Kenyah Dayak longhouses in East Kalimantan's Apo Kayan region.
Most notable are the hundreds of meters of relief sculpture at the temple of Borobudur in central Java. Approximately two miles of exquisite relief sculpture tell the story of the life of Buddha and illustrate his teachings. The temple was originally home to 504 statues of the seated Buddha. This site, as with others in central Java, show a clear Indian influence.
Calligraphy, mostly based on the Qur'an, is often used as decoration as Islam forbids naturalistic depictions. Some foreign painters have also settled in Indonesia. Modern Indonesian painters use a wide variety of styles and themes.
Balinese art is art of Hindu-Javanese origin that grew from the work of artisans of the Majapahit Kingdom, with their expansion to Bali in the late 13th century. From the 16th until the 20th centuries, the village of Kamasan, Klungkung (East Bali), was the centre of classical Balinese art. During the first part of the 20th century, new varieties of Balinese art developed. Since the late twentieth century, Ubud and its neighboring villages established a reputation as the center of Balinese art. Ubud and Batuan are known for their paintings, Mas for their woodcarvings, Celuk for gold and silver smiths, and Batubulan for their stone carvings. Covarrubias describes Balinese art as, "... a highly developed, although informal Baroque folk art that combines the peasant liveliness with the refinement of classicism of Hinduistic Java, but free of the conservative prejudice and with a new vitality fired by the exuberance of the demonic spirit of the tropical primitive". Eiseman correctly pointed out that Balinese art is actually carved, painted, woven, and prepared into objects intended for everyday use rather than as object d 'art.
In the 1920s, with the arrival of many western artists, Bali became an artist enclave (as Tahiti was for Paul Gauguin) for avant-garde artists such as Walter Spies (German), Rudolf Bonnet (Dutch), Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur (Belgian), Arie Smit (Dutch) and Donald Friend (Australian) in more recent years. Most of these western artists had very little influence on the Balinese until the post-World War Two period, although some accounts over-emphasise the western presence at the expense of recognising Balinese creativity.
This groundbreaking period of creativity reached a peak in the late 1930s. A stream of famous visitors, including Charlie Chaplin and the anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, encouraged the talented locals to create highly original works. During their stay in Bali in the mid-1930s, Bateson and Mead collected over 2000 paintings, predominantly from the village of Batuan, but also from the coastal village of Sanur. Among western artists, Spies and Bonnet are often credited for the modernization of traditional Balinese paintings. From the 1950s onwards Baliese artists incorporated aspects of perspective and anatomy from these artists. More importantly, they acted as agents of change by encouraging experimentation, and promoted departures from tradition. The result was an explosion of individual expression that increased the rate of change in Balinese art.
Japanese art and architecture is works of art produced in Japan from the beginnings of human habitation there, sometime in the 10th millennium BC, to the present. Japanese art covers a wide range of art styles and media, including ancient pottery, sculpture in wood and bronze, ink painting on silk and paper, and a myriad of other types of works of art; from ancient times until the contemporary 21st century.
The art form rose to great popularity in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the second half of the 17th century, originating with the single-color works of Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only India ink was used, then some prints were manually colored with a brush, but in the 18th century Suzuki Harunobu developed the technique of polychrome printing to produce nishiki-e.
Japanese painting (絵画 Kaiga) is one of the oldest and most highly refined of the Japanese arts, encompassing a wide variety of genre and styles. As with the history of Japanese arts in general, the history Japanese painting is a long history of synthesis and competition between native Japanese aesthetics and adaptation of imported ideas.
The origins of painting in Japan date well back into Japan's prehistoric period. Simple stick figures and geometric designs can be found on Jōmon period pottery and Yayoi period (300 BC – 300 AD) dōtaku bronze bells. Mural paintings with both geometric and figurative designs have been found in numerous tumulus from the Kofun period (300–700 AD).
Ancient Japanese sculpture was mostly derived from the idol worship in Buddhism or animistic rites of Shinto deity. In particular, sculpture among all the arts came to be most firmly centered around Buddhism. Materials traditionally used were metal—especially bronze—and, more commonly, wood, often lacquered, gilded, or brightly painted. By the end of the Tokugawa period, such traditional sculpture – except for miniaturized works – had largely disappeared because of the loss of patronage by Buddhist temples and the nobility.
Ukiyo, meaning "floating world", refers to the impetuous young culture that bloomed in the urban centers of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto that were a world unto themselves. It is an ironic allusion to the homophone term "Sorrowful World" (憂き世), the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release.
Korean art is noted for its traditions in pottery, music, calligraphy, painting, sculpture, and other genres, often marked by the use of bold color, natural forms, precise shape and scale, and surface decoration.
While there are clear and distinguishing differences between three independent cultures, there are significant and historical similarities and interactions between the arts of Korea, China and Japan.
The study and appreciation of Korean art is still at a formative stage in the West. Because of Korea’s position between China and Japan, Korea was seen as a mere conduit of Chinese culture to Japan. However, recent scholars have begun to acknowledge Korea’s own unique art, culture and important role in not only transmitting Chinese culture but assimilating it and creating a unique culture of its own. An art given birth to and developed by a nation is its own art.
Generally the history of Korean painting is dated to approximately 108 C.E., when it first appears as an independent form. Between that time and the paintings and frescoes that appear on the Goryeo dynasty tombs, there has been little research. Suffice to say that til the Joseon dynasty the primary influence was Chinese painting though done with Korean landscapes, facial features, Buddhist topics, and an emphasis on celestial observation in keeping with the rapid development of Korean astronomy.
Throughout the history of Korean painting, there has been a constant separation of monochromatic works of black brushwork on very often mulberry paper or silk; and the colourful folk art or min-hwa, ritual arts, tomb paintings, and festival arts which had extensive use of colour.
This distinction was often class-based: scholars, particularly in Confucian art felt that one could see colour in monochromatic paintings within the gradations and felt that the actual use of colour coarsened the paintings, and restricted the imagination. Korean folk art, and painting of architectural frames was seen as brightening certain outside wood frames, and again within the tradition of Chinese architecture, and the early Buddhist influences of profuse rich thalo and primary colours inspired by Art of India.
Lao Buddhist sculptures were created in a large variety of material including gold, silver and most often bronze. Brick-and-mortar also was a medium used for colossal images, a famous of these is the image of Phya Vat (16th century) in Vientiane, although a renovation completely altered the appearance of the sculpture, and it no longer resembles a Lao Buddha. Wood is popular for small, votive Buddhist images that are often left in caves. Wood is also very common for large, life-size standing images of the Buddha. The most famous two sculptures carved in semi-precious stone are the Phra Keo (The Emerald Buddha) and the Phra Phuttha Butsavarat. The Phra Keo, which is probably of Xieng Sen (Chiang Saen) origin, is carved from a solid block of jade. It rested in Vientiane for two hundred years before the Siamese carried it away as booty in the late 18th century. Today it serves as the palladium of the Kingdom of Thailand, and resides at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The Phra Phuttha Butsavarat, like the Phra Keo, is also enshrined in its own chapel at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Before the Siamese seized it in the early 19th century, this crystal image was the palladium of the Lao kingdom of Champassack.
Many beautiful Lao Buddhist sculptures are carved right into the Pak Ou caves. Near Pak Ou (mouth of the Ou river) the Tham Ting (lower cave) and the Tham Theung (upper cave) are near Luang Prabang, Laos. They are a magnificent group of caves that are only accessible by boat, about two hours upstream from the center of Luang Prabang, and have recently become more well known and frequented by tourists.The caves are noted for their impressive Buddhist and Lao style sculptures carved into the cave walls, and hundreds of discarded Buddhist figures laid out over the floors and wall shelves. They were put there as their owners did not wish to destroy them, so a difficult journey is made to the caves to place their unwanted statue there.
The ancient and refined traditional culture of Kathmandu, for that matter in the whole of Nepal, is an uninterrupted and exceptional meeting of the Hindu and Buddhist ethos practiced by its highly religious people. It has also embraced in its fold the cultural diversity provided by the other religions such as Jainism, Islam and Christianity.
Thai art and visual art was traditionally and primarily Buddhist and Royal Art. Sculpture was almost exclusively of Buddha images, while painting was confined to illustration of books and decoration of buildings, primarily palaces and temples. Thai Buddha images from different periods have a number of distinctive styles. Contemporary Thai art often combines traditional Thai elements with modern techniques.
Traditional Thai paintings showed subjects in two dimensions without perspective. The size of each element in the picture reflected its degree of importance. The primary technique of composition is that of apportioning areas: the main elements are isolated from each other by space transformers. This eliminated the intermediate ground, which would otherwise imply perspective. Perspective was introduced only as a result of Western influence in the mid-19th century.
The Sukhothai period began in the 14th century in the Sukhothai kingdom. Buddha images of the Sukhothai period are elegant, with sinuous bodies and slender, oval faces. This style emphasized the spiritual aspect of the Buddha, by omitting many small anatomical details. The effect was enhanced by the common practice of casting images in metal rather than carving them. This period saw the introduction of the "walking Buddha" pose.
Sukhothai artists tried to follow the canonical defining marks of a Buddha, as they are set out in ancient Pali texts:
Tibetan art refers to the art of Tibet and other present and former Himalayan kingdoms (Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal, and Sikkim). Tibetan art is first and foremost a form of sacred art, reflecting the over-riding influence of Tibetan Buddhism on these cultures. The Sand Mandala (Tib: kilkhor) is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition which symbolises the transitory nature of things. As part of Buddhist canon, all things material are seen as transitory. A sand mandala is an example of this, being that once it has been built and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished, it is systematically destroyed.
As Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a separate school in the 4th century BC it emphasized the role of bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who forgo their personal escape to Nirvana in order to assist others. From an early time various bodhisattvas were also subjects of statuary art. Tibetan Buddhism, as an offspring of Mahayana Buddhism, inherited this tradition. But the additional dominating presence of the Vajrayana (or Buddhist tantra) may have had an overriding importance in the artistic culture. A common bodhisattva depicted in Tibetan art is the deity Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara), often portrayed as a thousand-armed saint with an eye in the middle of each hand, representing the all-seeing compassionate one who hears our requests. This deity can also be understood as a Yidam, or 'meditation Buddha' for Vajrayana practice.
Tibetan Buddhism contains Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana Buddhism for its common symbolism of the vajra, the diamond thunderbolt (known in Tibetan as the dorje). Most of the typical Tibetan Buddhist art can be seen as part of the practice of tantra. Vajrayana techniques incorporate many visualizations/imaginations during meditation, and most of the elaborate tantric art can be seen as aids to these visualizations; from representations of meditational deities (yidams) to mandalas and all kinds of ritual implements.
A visual aspect of Tantric Buddhism is the common representation of wrathful deities, often depicted with angry faces, circles of flame, or with the skulls of the dead. These images represent the Protectors (Skt. dharmapala) and their fearsome bearing belies their true compassionate nature. Actually their wrath represents their dedication to the protection of the dharma teaching as well as to the protection of the specific tantric practices to prevent corruption or disruption of the practice. They are most importantly used as wrathful psychological aspects that can be used to conquer the negative attitudes of the practitioner.
Historians note that Chinese painting had a profound influence on Tibetan painting in general. Starting from the 14th and 15th century, Tibetan painting had incorporated many elements from the Chinese, and during the 18th century, Chinese painting had a deep and far-stretched impact on Tibetan visual art. According to Giuseppe Tucci, by the time of the Qing Dynasty, "a new Tibetan art was then developed, which in a certain sense was a provincial echo of the Chinese 18th century's smooth ornate preciosity."
Vietnamese art is from one of the oldest of such cultures in the Southeast Asia region. A rich artistic heritage that dates to prehistoric times and includes: silk painting, sculpture, pottery, ceramics, woodblock prints, architecture, music, dance and theatre.
Traditional Vietnamese art is art practiced in Vietnam or by Vietnamese artists, from ancient times (including the elaborate Đông Sơn drums) to post-Chinese domination art which was strongly influenced by Chinese Buddhist art, among other philosophies such as Taoism and Confucianism. The art of Champa and French art also played a smaller role later on.
The Chinese influence on Vietnamese art extends into Vietnamese pottery and ceramics, calligraphy, and traditional architecture. Currently, Vietnamese lacquer paintings have proven to be quite popular.
The Nguyễn dynasty, the last ruling dynasty of Vietnam (c. 1802–1945), saw a renewed interest in ceramics and porcelain art. Imperial courts across Asia imported Vietnamese ceramics.
Despite how highly developed the performing arts (such as imperial court music and dance) became during the Nguyễn dynasty, some view other fields of arts as beginning to decline during the latter part of the Nguyễn dynasty.
Beginning in the 19th century, modern art and French artistic influences spread into Vietnam. In the early 20th century, the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine (Indochina College of Arts) was founded to teach European methods and exercised influence mostly in the larger cities, such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Travel restrictions imposed on the Vietnamese during France's 80-year rule of Vietnam and the long period of war for national independence meant that very few Vietnamese artists were able to train or work outside of Vietnam. A small number of artists from well-to-do backgrounds had the opportunity to go to France and make their careers there for the most part. Examples include Le Thi Luu, Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Le Van De, Le Ba Dang and Pham Tang.
Modern Vietnamese artists began to utilize French techniques with many traditional mediums such as silk, lacquer, etc., thus creating a unique blend of eastern and western elements.
Calligraphy has had a long history in Vietnam, previously using Chinese characters along with chữ nôm. However, most modern Vietnamese calligraphy instead uses the Roman-character based Quốc Ngữ, which has proven to be very popular.
In the past, with literacy in the old character-based writing systems of Vietnam being restricted to scholars and elites, calligraphy nevertheless still played an important part in Vietnamese life. On special occasions such as the Lunar New Year, people would go to the village teacher or scholar to make them a calligraphy hanging (often poetry, folk sayings or even single words). People who could not read or write also often commissioned scholars to write prayers which they would burn at temple shrines.
Shang Dynasty (Yin) bronze ritual wine vessel, dating to the 13th century BC, Chinese
The Terracotta Army sculpture, 3rd century BC, Chinese
The Buddha statue of Avukana, 5th century, Sri Lanka
Song Dynasty porcelain bottle with iron pigment over transparent colorless glaze, 11th century, Chinese
Genji Monogatari, Tosa Mitsuoki, (1617–1691), Japanese
After Rain at Mt. Inwang, Cheong Seon (1676–1759), Korean
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