Japanese sculpture derived from Shinto funerary and Buddhist religious arts. Portrait sculpture was developed only as a memorial to a shrine patron or temple founder. 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.
The stimulus of Western art forms returned sculpture to the Japanese art scene and introduced the plaster cast, outdoor heroic sculpture, and the school of Paris concept of sculpture as an "art form." Such ideas adapted in Japan during the late nineteenth century, together with the return of state patronage, rejuvenated sculpture. After World War II, sculptors turned away from the figurative French school of Rodin and Maillol toward aggressive modern and avant-garde forms and materials, sometimes on an enormous scale. A profusion of materials and techniques characterized these new experimental sculptures, which also absorbed the ideas of international "op" (optical illusion) and "pop" (popular motif) art. A number of innovative artists were both sculptors and painters or printmakers, their new theories cutting across material boundaries.
In the 1970s, the ideas of contextual placement of natural objects of stone, wood, bamboo, and paper into relationships with people and their environment were embodied in the mono-ha school. The mono-ha rtists emphasized materiality as the most important aspect of art and brought to an end the antiformalism that had dominated the avant-garde in the preceding two decades. This focus on the relationships between objects and people was ubiquitous throughout the arts world and led to a rising appreciation of "Japanese" qualities in the environment and a return to native artistic principles and forms. Among these precepts were a reverence for nature and various Buddhist concepts, which were brought into play by architects to treat time and space problems. Western ideology was carefully reexamined, and much was rejected as artists turned to their own environment--both inward and outward--for sustenance and inspiration. From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, artists began to create a vital new art, which was both contemporary and Asian in sources and expression but still very much a part of the international scene. These artists focused on projecting their own individualism and national styles rather than on adapting or synthesizing Western ideas exclusively.
Outdoor sculpture, which came to the fore with the advent of the Hakone Open-Air Museum in 1969, was widely used in the 1980s. Cities supported enormous outdoor sculptures for parks and plazas, and major architects planned for sculpture in their buildings and urban layouts. Outdoor museums and exhibitions burgeoned, stressing the natural placement of sculpture in the environment. Because hard sculpture stone is not native to Japan, most outdoor pieces were created from stainless steel, plastic, or aluminum for "tension and compression" machine constructions of mirror-surfaced steel or for elegant, polished-aluminum, ultramodern shapes. The strong influence of modern high technology on the artists resulted in experimentation with kinetic, tensile forms, such as flexible arcs and "info-environmental" sculptures using lights. Video components and video art developed rapidly from the late 1970s throughout the 1980s. The new Japanese experimental sculptors could be understood as working with Buddhist ideas of permeability and regeneration in structuring their forms, in contrast to the general Western conception of sculpture as something with finite and permanent contours.
In the 1980s, wood and natural materials were used prominently by many sculptors, who now began to place their works in inner courtyards and enclosed spaces. Also, a Japanese feeling for rhythmic motion, captured in recurring forms as a "systematic gestural motion," was used by both long-established artists like Kiyomizu Kyubei and Nagasawa Hidetoshi and the younger generation led by Toya Shigeo. The 1970s search for a national identity led to a renewed understanding of Japanese forms, spatial perceptions, rhythms, and philosophical conceptions, which reinvigorated Japanese sculpture in the 1980s.
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