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History of Art: Asian Art

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This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
History of Art: Byzantine and Islamic Art
History of Art: The Middle Ages

Welcome back to our series on art history! From the lands of the Byzantine Empire, we now venture onward to experience the world of Asian art. Let's see how history significantly affected the art of this time.

The Evolution of Asian Art

To dive into the evolution of eastern art, let's take a step back into history and revel in the beauty of this enigmatic region full of custom and tradition. The historical influences of Asian art encompass a wide variety of religions, conquerors, and cultural influences.

History marks the beginning with Hindu and Buddhist art around the 5th century BCE. These ancient religions were largely represented by an introspective way of life, and their followers adorned their temples with elaborately carved walls and stone statues.

The Emerald Buddha
Pictured here is the Emerald Buddha made of semi-precious stone and gold.

As time pushed forward, however, the tides would change as often as the changing Chinese dynasties and art, of course, followed along with it.

This is when we start to see the poetry and philosophy of Asia truly surface. With each period reflecting on the religious, political, and cultural developments of its day, we also see a wide range of creative styles begin to emerge.

But do not mistake Asian art for being merely Chinese or Japanese. As the Earth's largest continent, Asia also holds the heart of many creatives, from India and Indonesia, to Central Asia, and so much more. So let's voyage into various categories of art from this incredible region.

Paintings

The early Buddhists believed in many sacred symbols pertaining to the travels of Gautama Buddha and his search for enlightenment in the early 6th century BCE. One of those symbols, the mandala, represented the universe and became an important aspect of Buddhist paintings as it often signified a space for meditation and trance induction.

Painting of Buddha
Painting titled, " Buddha and the Five Planets" by Chang Huai.

As you can imagine, during this earlier time many of the paintings that were created were centered around religion. The Bhutanese, in particular, painted elaborate "thangkas," or paintings on cloth, that depicted traditional Buddhist iconography with beautiful mineral paints and strong geometric shapes.

Bhutanese Thangka Painting
Pictured here is a traditional Bhutanese thangka painting.

The Chinese, however, adopted a slightly different painting technique. Using techniques derived from the practice of calligraphy, where a brush was dipped into colorful ink, they painted stunning works of portraits and landscapes upon silk cloth. 

More widely known to us today is the classical Chinese landscape painting, originated by artists during the five dynasties who painted towering mountains with bold black lines and a gentle ink wash. They longed to escape the world around them for the serenity of nature and became entranced in political, religious, and philosophical expression through these profound images.

Traditional Chinese Painting
A traditional Chinese painting titled, "Loquats and Mountain Bird."

Similarly, the Koreans and Japanese also created lavish landscape paintings that captured the world around them. But it wasn't until the early 19th century that we begin to see a strong French cultural influence playing out in modern Vietnamese art.

Stone Carvings & Sculptures

If there is one incredible hallmark to the ancient world, it's the patience of its professional creatives. Imagine the long days of carving one of these beautiful bas-relief stone carvings along a sacred temple.

Stone Carvings from Asian Art
A stone bas-relief from the Bayon Temple. Image by Manfred Werner.

The Indians, for instance, created the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram. Its walls became the canvas as artists depicted the stories and families of Hindu deities upon them. As always, Buddha also had a strong presence in this art form, with many elaborate stone carvings dedicated to his form.

Shore Temple Stone Carvings
Stone carvings from the Shore Temple. Image by SatishKumar.

Another glorious aspect of Asian culture can be found in the remarkable sculptures made out of just about anything, from terracotta to beautiful bronze and gold statues. Though rare, sculptures made of semi-precious stones have emerged throughout time as well. The Emerald Buddha in Thailand, for instance, is a beautiful figurine made out of either jade or jasper and clothed in exquisite gold clothing.

Architecture

When you think of Asian architecture, one of the most widely recognized regions for beautiful architecture is none other than Japan. Adapted from the structures of China, this style is actually not native to the land.

The basis of Japanese architecture was an understanding of the interaction between the outside and inside worlds. These wooden structures housed paper-thin walls and impressively curved roofs covering glorious verandas. 

Traditional Japanese Architecture
A traditional Japanese building, the Kinkaku Kyoto.

These buildings also became the center of many spiritual practices, with elaborate shrines crafted inside their walls or set next to the structure upon the neighboring landscape.

Though made of stone instead of wood, the architecture of India was also quite impressive. The Konark Sun Temple, for example, was built in the shape of a huge chariot, with elaborately carved wheels and all! It is listed as one of the seven wonders of India for its exquisitely detailed sculptures and ornamental walls.

The Konark Sun Temple in Asia
A side view of the Konark Sun Temple. Image by Kartike Bhatore.

Calligraphy

With a steady hand and enough patience, you too could harness the skills to create outstanding Asian calligraphy. Originally developed in China, this style of writing became a popular practice throughout East Asian culture.

An Example of Traditional Chinese Calligraphy
An example of traditional Chinese calligraphy.

The foundation of calligraphy was simple. Practitioners young and old used an ink brush, ink, and paper to skillfully write for both communicative and artistic purposes.

Students worked day and night to perfect this craft, often copying examples from their master or a reputable calligrapher to hone their skills. Deviation from this strict method of drawing was seen as a failure, so students also learned about character structure, balance, and rhythm as essential components to this art.

In addition to these basic tools, Koreans also implemented the use of paperweights and desk pads to facilitate their work. But no matter the region, this unique skill became an important contributor to creative typography and paintings alike.

An Example of Korean Calligraphy
An example of Korean calligraphy.

Conclusion

Asia, with all its vast lands and history, still stands as a significant contributor to the arts even today. Its wide range of culture and influence is a true testament to the evolution of art, and I hope you continue to learn more about these amazing timelines on your own.

For more wondrous tales of Asian art history, dive into the links below for further reading. And join me next month when we discuss the mysterious art from the Middle Ages.

The following sources were also included in this article:

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