Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Colour And The Japanese Garden


Monochrome is preponderant in Japanese art and is also illustrated in the garden tradition we see today. In contrast to our Western European tradition, the deliberate use colour in the Japanese garden appears fleetingly, principally in spring and autumn; the summer months reveal no concerted effort to create colourful planting effects.  The outstanding preference is for subtle chromatic effects; when colour does come into the display the effect is all the more intense as the contrast is all the greater. The Heian period (784-1185) was an age of extravagant indulgence, coupled with a keen appreciation of the aesthetics of colour; a court-based culture steeped in elaboration, elegance and refinement. Flowering plants were highly regarded and many court rituals and festivals were associated with the appearance of certain species. The planting of flowering plants was done with restraint, yet in the contemporary literature over 170 colours are mentioned. Prose works are rich in references to colour; kimono design, costumes and paintings reflected a society with a passionate love of colour, which spilled over into the garden.


With the increasing influence of Buddhism and, in particular, Zen Buddhism in the Kamakura period (1185-1333), monochrome became the established trend. A new class of rulers established themselves; the samurai and monks brought with them a revised emphasis on the role of colour. Zen Buddhism, with its exhortation to direct simplicity, concentrated on revealing the essential core of meaning, preferring to leave to the imagination anything beyond the essential. Colour was associated with worldliness, a phenomenological world to be transcended, leaving an emphasis on form and texture. Thus form in design gained a supremacy that has lasted ever since.  Similarly in 20th century Europe, Picasso and Braque, in the later stages of 'analytical cubism' exploring the relationship of form in two dimensions, demanded the virtual elimination of colour, in their work. In ink paintings (suibokuga) of the Kamakura and Muromachi eras (1185-1568) entire landscapes were expressed with absolute economy, in monochrome, using only gradations of ink washes. The close relationship between, painting and garden building, as we can see at Ryoan-ji, created a physical model of the summation of artistic ideas of the time.


Colour re-established itself during the Momoyama period (1568-1603) when there is evidence of the indulgence in exuberant colour. This was to be tempered by the restraining influence of the Tea Ceremony, Cha no yu, and its aesthetic conceptions. In a sense there was a compromise; colour still appeared in the garden, but was defined by season. In Japanese gardens in May one is greeted with exuberant displays of azaleas, but the same gardens a month later will give a very different impression.  Colour still has a place and a time, but its importance receives less attention than the harmonies of interactive form on which the garden principally depends.