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Japanese art: the formats of two-dimensional works

Japanese two-dimensional works of art can take a number of different formats—printed books (ehon), single- or multi-sheet prints (hanga), paintings in the form of hanging-scrolls (kakemono) and handscrolls (emaki), moveable folding screens (byōbu), usually in pairs, sliding door paintings (fusuma-e) and smaller scale fan paintings and album leaves. The screens and sliding doors also served to exclude draughts or divide rooms, and were changed according to the season. Hanging-scrolls were displayed, sometimes in pairs or sets of three in the tokonoma (ceremonial alcoves) of reception rooms of mansions and, again, could be changed according to the season, or to honor a special visitor. All such works were viewed seated at floor level on tatami mats.
Shaka no honji (The Story of Sakyamuni), hand scroll, ink and color on paper, 32.9 x 1703.4 cm, Tosa School, Edo Period, Japan
Shaka no honji (The Story of Sakyamuni), from a set of three hand scrolls, ink and color on paper, 17th-18th century, 32.9 x 1703.4 cm, Tosa School, Edo Period, Japan © The Trustees of the British Museum. The story, which evolved in medieval Japan, interweaves the basic religious message of the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama through his enlightenment to become the Buddha Shakyamuni (Japanese: Shaka), with the more human story of his relationship to his mother Queen Maya. In this scene he gains enlightenment.
Handscrolls (like the one above) were usually placed on a low table and unrolled from right to left to show a narrative story or seasonal sequence. Print series, small-scale paintings or fan paintings were often mounted in albums. Individual prints, especially the Ukiyo-e portraits of popular actors or courtesans, might be pasted to a screen. The size of the print was limited by the size of cherry-wood block available. Often two, three or more sheets were arranged side by side to depict a wider scene. Books were printed two pages to one sheet of paper, which was then folded, and the sheets sewn together at the spine with a plain cover.

Hanging Scrolls

Kakemono (hanging scrolls) were originally used to display Buddhist paintings, and calligraphy. The painting in ink and colors on either silk or paper was backed with paper and given silk borders chosen to harmonize with the painting. Finally, a roller was affixed to the bottom. Scrolls were kept in specially made paulownia wooden boxes to protect them from dust, changing climate conditions and insect damage.
Gan Ku, Tiger, painting, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. 169 x 114.5 cm, Japan © The Trustees of the British Museum
Tiger (detail), Gan Ku, Tiger, hanging scroll, Edo period, c. 1784-96, ink and color on silk. 169 x 114.5 cm, Japan © The Trustees of the British Museum

Tiger paintings

Gan Ku, Tiger, painting, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. 169 x 114.5 cm, Japan © The Trustees of the British Museum
Gan Ku, Tiger, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. 169 x 114.5 cm, Japan © The Trustees of the British Museum
Tiger paintings were very popular in Japan, but as the artists would never have seen a real tiger, they must have worked from skins. Gan Ku became famous for his paintings of tigers and has brought this one immediately to life with his strong imagination and skilful brushwork. The fearsome advance of the beast towards the viewer is suggested by the powerfully hunched shoulders, the placing of its feet and the tip of the tail, just visible, which all emphasize the animal's size and strength. Gan Ku has used the careful brushwork of Chinese academic painters to depict the tiger, while the setting of tree, rocks and water is in a much freer, dynamic style typical of his later ink and wash works.
In 1784 Gan Ku entered the service of Prince Arisugawa and for this painting he uses the art-name Utanosuke which was given to him by the prince. He seems to have used this name until about 1796.
The signature reads 'Utanosuke Gan Ku', and the seals read "Kakan" and "Gan Ku."

Suggested readings:
L. Smith, V. Harris and T. Clark, Japanese art: masterpieces in The British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Lani Lee
    In painting tiger paintings, if artists had never seen tigers before, would they have used other animal features as models to their paintings?
    (4 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
      They would have used the skin of the tiger and painted based on their pelts. As the article mentioned: "Tiger paintings were very popular in Japan, but as the artists would never have seen a real tiger, they must have worked from skins."
      (5 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user martilau
    Why is there no mention of Japanese crest design? It is a skill pass÷d down from 600 ce to present day with over 40000 variations. It has critical social implication and even the imperial family has and uses their Kamon. The design is a long lasting cultural art.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user James Ku
    Tiger painting is awesome, what do they paint with?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin tree style avatar for user maggieharris
    In the old times, how did they make their colors?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user karewa217
      With natural colors from different fruits. The native Americans used blackberries and blueberries for blue dye. Some other people used Indigo dye. Indigo dye was naturally extracted from Indigofera tinctoria. But now days we use indigo for jeans and it is synthetic
      (2 votes)
  • winston default style avatar for user Jackson Heath
    were the supplies to make a painting expensive then?
    (2 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Kathryn Kananen
    In regards to Shintoism, I imagine that art was often revolved around Kami. Did the regionality of art vary from prefecture to prefecture, or was the art consistent with the more well known kami? I'm curious to known what those differences are and if they are reflective in kakemono.
    (1 vote)
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  • winston default style avatar for user Jackson Heath
    how long was it estimated to make this painting?
    (1 vote)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Maria Fe Querubin
    "Gan Ku became famous for his paintings of tigers and has brought this one immediately to life with his strong imagination and skilful brushwork."

    He didn't see a tiger in real life but managed to paint one?? there's google in the past, isn't it?
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user faith.ramsey
    How long did it take for them to curate this scroll?
    (1 vote)
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  • mr pants pink style avatar for user #FRONNIE 4 LIFE!!!!!!!
    Doesn't Anime count as Japanesse art too? I'm just wondering here people cus' I'm really stuck here. I hope somebody can tell me the anwser please I really need to know thx for your support and listening to my question.
    (1 vote)
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