The Representation of Warfare in Japanese Art: Samurai and the Paint-Roller

In the last decade art historians have begun to demonstrate that Japanese war painting was indeed vital in both practice and theory. In Japanese paintings, there existed overwhelming impression of the immense vigor displayed both by the combatants and by the artists in the paintings. Moreover, everything took on crystalline clarity and comprehensibility.

This helps to provide a sense of recognizable perspective and three-dimensionality. It permits an attention to detail that enlivens each and every scene – an extraordinary sharpness that is heightened by the absence of shading. These were the main   characteristics of the paintings of the feudal Japan.

Because of economic and land-holding changes in late 1000s, the emperors no longer had the financial independence they once enjoyed.  At the same time, a newly powerful warrior class was emerging. Two of the great warrior clans: the Taira and the Minamoto were themselves descendants of emperors. It was not difficult for them to take advantage of the withdrawal of the emperors into cloister government.

The Shogunate promoted a culture that combines aspects of Samurai culture and the arts of the imperial court. The striking images already began to appear in the late twelfth century, reaching a climax in the work of an amazingly versatile painter, active in the thirteenth century, who produced three scrolls depicting the main events of the Heiji Uprising.

Called the Heiji Monogatari Emaki (the Illustrated Tale of the Heiji Era), the scrolls achieve a realism of representation, and a power of visual depiction that cannot be found in any of the manuscript illustrations or paintings in the Europe of the time, or indeed in any of the depictions of warfare that have survived from antiquity or the Middle Ages. To tell the full story of the Uprising and its repression, the artist required three paper scrolls.

It is the first, devoted to the assault on the Sanjō Palace that concerns us here, because its subject clearly is a military action. The other two scrolls document the folly of the insurrection and its grim aftermath. The main impact of the scroll is its demonstration that art can invest even the most pitiful events with a drama and grandeur that make their perpetrators, however brutal, seem splendid and superb.

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