Sakura 桜 (cherry blossoms) are one of the most recognizable flowers of Japan. They are gorgeous, delicate and don't stay in bloom very long. This haiku reflects on that fact:
'Once again in love
once again regrets,
as fleeting as cherry blossoms'
Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-1785)
My weeping cherry blossom tree (shidarezakura) blooms for maybe a week or two in late March or early April and it's GLORIOUS!
As excited as I get for the short period my tree blooms, it isn't surprising sakura have come to symbolize fleeting beauty.1 Gathering to view sakura while they lasted and party (hanami) has been a Japanese tradition since the Nara Period (710-784)2 and continues today. In fact, the last of my sakura are falling I am going to enjoy them with some green tea ice cream and a discussion of sakura in Japanese art.
Japanese art featuring sakura is usually on byōbu (folding screens), emaki-mono (hand scrolls), and shōji (sliding doors). Early Edo period (1603-1868) paintings were often gold or silver with color and ink… fancy schmancy. Owning such objects and having free time to enjoy art meant you had lots of money. Despite the opulence of the materials I find the paintings understated, like Poem by Kamo no Chōmei with Underpainting of Cherry Blossoms (below). The silver and gold compliment each other and delicate calligraphy completes the composition.
Poem by Kamo no Chōmei with Underpainting of Cherry Blossoms
Calligraphy by Hon'ami Kōetsu (Japanese, 1558–1637)
Underpainting attributed to Tawaraya Sōtatsu (Japanese, died ca. 1640)
Momoyama period (1573–1615)
Poem card (shikishi) mounted as a hanging scroll; ink, gold, and silver on paper
Precious metals continued to be prominent in Edo period painting. In the six panel folding screen Cherry Blossom and Stream by Kano Eigaku (Japanese,1790–1867) the gold background and soft pink sakura pair perfectly. This style was definitive of the Kanō school of painting.
During the Edo period there were also painters using shading and attention to spatial depth to paint sakura.3 A set of 30 hanging scrolls collectively called Colorful Realm of Living Beings by Itaku Jokuchū (1716–1800) is a prime example. My favorite of the bunch is the breathtaking sakura (below).
Colorful Realm of Living Beings (c.1757–1766)
Itaku Jokuchū (1716–1800)
ink and color on silk
As the Edo period progressed into the late 18th and early 19th century the merchant class became prosperous and respected. This meant more of Japanese society could enjoy leisure time for things like hanami. Technological advancements also made production of nishiki-e (multi-color woodblock prints) easier so the cost became reasonable enough for the merchant class to purchase them. Sakura and hanami remained popular subjects. There are tons of examples, but here is one of my favorites:
Yayoi asukayama hanami 1772 - 1776
vertical Koban Nishiki-e, woodcut, color ; 21.5 x 15.4 cm.
From the series: Jūnikagetsu : Twelve months.
Attributed to: Kitao Shigemasa
You can see more of my favorites here, here, and here.
Once photography came into existence sakura and hanami remained popular subjects. This early collotype from the Meiji era
(1868-1912) and this mixed media work from 1915 show how
photography embraced sakura. Contemporary art, like this beautiful 2014 sakura mural by Jonathan Wakuda Fischer, continues to love sakura.
Sakura are by no means limited to painting, prints and photography. Almost anything that can be decorated has been adorned with sakura. Ceramics, tsuba (sword mountings), kozuka (sword handles), Karaori (Noh costumes), and maki-e (gold covered lacquer) all beautifully incorporate a sakura motif.
Sakura are a well established part of our collective visual vocabulary and continues to be ubiquitous. If you Google ‘cherry blossom t-shirt’ a bazillion images pop up. I even have sakura socks.
Sakura have inspired a variety of literature and visual arts in Japan and throughout the world for generations. I recommend searching the online collections at the MFA Boston and Asian Art Museum San Francisco for ‘cherry blossoms’ - you won't regret it. While artistic styles fluctuate, sakura and celebration of their fleeing beauty endures. Cheers!
1) Addis, Stephen, How To Look At Japanese Art, Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York, 1996 pg. 96