Flowers, Forms, and Philosophies

After examining more modern aspects of Japanese art to begin to understand the dynamic between western influence and native culture, looking into ikebana seemed like a good change of perspective, as it is a visual display of ideals that have been integral to the Japanese aesthetic for hundreds of years. The introduction of Buddhism is said to have sparked the development of ikebana, but it has evolved to represent a uniquely Japanese outlook that focuses on subtlety, attention to detail, and connection with nature. The complexity of the thought process involved reflects the organization of ikebana schools, each with their own philosophy and methods of teaching. Just as with Zen painting, the initial structures of temples and patronage gave rise to an art and way of thinking that was visually free from this involvement. This is significantly different from Western patterns, where a flourishing Flemish art market would have influenced intricate and realistic brushstrokes. Still lives were a comparatively late addition to the Western painting repertoire, and, even so, they were more of a representation of secular ideals than an identification with nature.

In that respect, it is difficult to think of Japanese aesthetics from a Western perspective, because while we might treat a flower arrangement or an oil painting as separate visual achievements, ikebana, for instance, has a much richer web of associations that span multiple layers of perception. There is also a perfect balance between the organic form and the control of it with a sort of effortlessness and humility that is lacking in the Western tradition in quite the same way. Appreciating the beauty of nature is a complicated affair, and perhaps the mastery of ikebana is the ability to display this appreciation in a seemingly simple and minimalist way.

Although the differences between ikebana schools vary subtly in the use of plants, composition, and intent, there seems to be a general goal to bring out the shussho, or the innate character of each plant, in every design. It is not an individual’s manipulation of the plants to fit their own vision, but rather an elaboration of qualities that are already present. It is interesting to note how this idea has followed the history of ikebana from its ancient origins to modern offshoots, and how the definition of intuitive input has changed according to the mood of the time. There might be strict rules for how certain elements have to be put together, or there might be no rules at all, but every style of arrangement is appreciated, pointing to a universality in visual thought that still has endless possible manifestations.