Elegance in Japanese Art: Reflections on Cultural Changes

Beauty is not as different among cultures as it often appears. Proportion (or harmony), for example, has been an important characteristic of beauty since ancient Greece, despite all the changes and iterations it has undergone. As one culture is influenced by another culture’s view of beauty, they don’t have to abandon their original view. They have the opportunity to widen their understanding of beauty. Since beauty is not rigidly definable, it is flexible enough to encompass the plurality of viewpoints around the world and throughout history.


New Women for a New Age: Japanese Beauties, 1890s-1930s at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston illustrates the enduring elegance in Japanese art. It has timeless significance. For Japanese art and culture, elegance might be the most prevalent aspect of beauty, especially in their paintings. New influences from the West did not abolish their depiction of elegance; rather, they incorporated new cultural elements into their work. For example, Katsuda Tetsu painted Woman Standing Next to Christmas Tree. The woman is clothed in a traditional kimono while next to a Christmas tree, which showed not the western religion but the western culture. Japanese paintings often had flat backgrounds of solid and subtle color (including this one by Tetsu), so the focus was on the elegant beauty of the depicted women (or other subject matter). The thin wispy eyebrows highlighted their kind eyes, while their red lips produced a feeling of warmth and the joy of being alive. More noticeably, the paleness of their skin lent itself to the delicate elegance that frames the overall aesthetic quality of each image. These women were the images of beauty for this culture. That fact remained as the details shifted.



There is something delightful in the subtleties of color and shape within Japanese art. Part of that delightfulness arose within the context of their traditions, with its ceremonies and dress. The artist, Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, created a series of six prints called Fashions of the Modern World; these blended the modern and the traditional with seamless grace. Only one, Tipsy, No. 1, portrays a woman in complete transformation to the modern world. She wears a bob hairstyle and a sleeveless print dress with a cocktail in front of her. Even with the contemporary clothing, the overall style of the print contains the Japanese aesthetic—in this case, a flat background with the pale-faced woman with thin red lips and a lock of hair forming a single curly loop on her forehead.


In 10th century Japan, Sei Shonogan wrote down thoughts and observations in the Pillow Book. It reads like a journal, and, at one point, she lists six things that are elegant: a white coat worn over a violet waist coat; duck eggs; shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl; a rosary of rock crystal; wisteria blossoms or plum blossoms covered with snow; and a pretty child eating strawberries. Shonogan did not explain this list. Commenting on this list, however, Barbara Sandrisser notes that multiple senses along with artifactual and natural elements intermingle in these examples. While western society does not focus on elegance as an important aspect of beauty, Japanese aesthetics is closely associated with it as it permeates the everyday. From tea ceremonies to folding fans, there is an exemplary history of objects and traditions that showcase elegance.


Color woodblock prints featuring women in formal clothing (e.g., the kimono) shifted as Western fashions (e.g., sleeveless dresses) infiltrated Japanese society. Photographs and postcards became prominent, and many of these works were prints used for foldout frontpieces for novels, showing that the western influence had permeated the entire culture, not just a small section. The Japanese people were determined—as they should be—to hold onto their traditions, while also allowing for these new styles and techniques. We can assume that some people resisted, while others embraced, all these changes. While it’s become commonplace to think multiculturalism is positive, it can be very unsettling and divisive, especially in the early stages of influence. Additionally, that time period was one of turmoil as the First World War had begun and ended.



Imagine believing that you have a grasp, even a tenuous one, of what constitutes beauty. And then, another culture comes in and unveils their different notion of beauty. It may be almost shocking at first, until you begin to see how they share some of the same conditions, like proportion or radiance. These conditions are expressed or depicted differently among different people. Rather than competing with each other, your view (and theirs) usually extends to include new elements from the other view. Technology has only increased the speed of influence. How do we (in different cultures) adapt to other understandings of beauty? How does this affect our idea of beauty? Analyzing these questions can begin to point to how beauty develops and expands through cultural changes.


The conditions of beauty are not in the details. Thinking that the details comprise the essence of beauty will lead to a view of complete subjectivity. Details, as we know from experience, change all the time. But there are conditions of beauty can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, such as proportion, and the middles ages, such as radiance. Plato believed that earthly beauty led people to perfect beauty, like rising stairs. Since we are finite and cannot comprehend all that beauty can comprise, we—individually and collectively—tend to focus on narrow aspects. Some might focus more on vibrant colors, while others concentrate on linear qualities or composition. And the Japanese tended to focus on elegance. The details in presenting a particular aspect (or aspects) of beauty might have many variations, but this does not mean that each variation represents a wholly different notion of what counts as beautiful. Proportion, as mentioned, is widely considered a condition for beauty. We delight in order, balance, and harmony. Despite its prevalence in these discussions, a plurality of details can be changed from artist to artist, and yet the work can still maintain proportion. These Japanese Beauties were created during a time where the culture was receiving a flood of outside influence. Yet they maintained their graceful elegance, in lieu of abandoning this emphasis.


We enlarge our perception and understanding of beauty by being exposed to a wide variety of beautiful things. After all, despite what we know about beauty, there is always an element of mystery, largely because we can’t know completely. These Japanese artists demonstrated how we can continue to exist with our own understanding of beauty, but, at the same time, allow it to include elements from other cultures. We don’t have to conform to another culture, but we can utilize the elements we like.


The belief that beauty is in the eye of the beholder certainly applies to each person’s taste. But it seems a bit strange to conclude; therefore, each culture has a completely different (and incompatible) view of beauty. Perhaps, a culture’s view of beauty is similar to a culture’s language. Hearing that other language for the first time is confusing. But as we can learn another language, we can also learn their way of approaching ideas, like beauty. The works in this exhibit show that it is possible to assimilate new details into one’s view of beauty. And these new elements do not destroy, or even contradict, the beauty of the work. They expand and complement one’s sphere of beauty. Beauty helps us transcend. And depending on our culture’s political, philosophical, and religious ideas, we interpret that differently. And these differences are reflected in the art that is produced. A plurality of beauty is necessary because we don’t always know what we’ll like (and this can change over our lifetime). Moreover, we don’t have to like everything. It’s through the process of experiencing or creating different things that we develop more robust notions of beauty. The artists in this exhibit demonstrated wonderfully that beauty may exhibit differences among other cultures, but those differences can help us further our comprehension.


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