Minimalist art is nothing new. Traditional Japanese art has its share of artworks where the creator sought beauty in simplicity. The two screen paintings called ‘Pine Trees’ by Hasegawa Tohaku (1539–1610) constitute an outstanding example of early modern minimalist art and were named a National Treasure of Japan. The history of Japanese aesthetics reveals great dynamism, with the latter half of the sixteenth century being a key period. This was the end of the warring states period (called Azuchi-Momoyama after the primary castes of two major warlords: Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi).
In his exploration of the world of the Tale of Genji, Ivan Morris makes several major observations about Classical Japanese aesthetics. A common link between that period and the common conception of traditional Japanese interior design is the lack of furniture. Aside from that, there are many differences. Tatami mats, tokonoma (traditional alcove where a scroll is commonly displayed), wabi-sabi, Zen temples, the rustic yet ritualistic tea ceremony, the samurai, shoguns, and even soy sauce all came after the world of the Tale of Genji (c.1010).
In the latter half of the sixteenth century, Japanese warlords enjoyed elaborate and expensive celebrations and decorations. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a Japanese warlord who had risen from humble origins, hosted elaborate tea ceremonies with expensive Chinese ceramics. The emphasis was on showiness and grandeur. Hideyoshi was able to recognize the talents of a great tea master, however. Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591), the former tea master for Oda Nobunaga, became an important figure in Hideyohi’s inner circle. Increasingly, Sen no Rikyū placed greater emphasis on simplicity, rusticity, and humility in his versions of the tea ceremony. In part, this was a reaction to the decadence of elaborate ceremonies with expensive Chinese ceramics. Sen no Rikyū was deeply influenced by what we would now call wabi-sabi-aesthetic appreciation of the impermanent, perishable, asymmetrical, rustic, and objects which bear the patina of aging). Though things did not end well for Sen no Rikyū personally (he and Hideyoshi had a falling out), his impact on the tea ceremony has lasted the test of time.
The movement toward greater simplicity can also be seen in the visual arts of the period. While gold and elaborate decoration remained popular with elites well into the Tokugawa Period (see the work of Kano Eitoku), simplicity in form and subject matter can be seen in the key works of Hasegawa Tohaku.
Hasegawa Tohaku did not paint exclusively in this style and one can find surviving works with much gold by the artist. His most famous work, however, remains this pair of screens from around 1595. In Japanese history, this was the period immediately after first Nobunaga, then Hideyoshi, re-unified Japan. The Japanese government of the 1590s was stronger than any Japanese government had been for over five hundred years.
The simple subject and economy of brushstrokes display an absolute mastery of subtlety. Hasegawa Tohaku wisely avoided the loud superficiality of excessive gold and crowding the scene with too many extras. Instead his focus on nature in a way reminiscent of both the much older Chinese landscape scrolls (see the works of Guo Xi, for example) or Zen-inspired ink and wash painting of Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506):
The Tokyo National Museum includes a detailed analysis of ‘Pine Trees’ by Hasekgawa Tohaku on its website: “ Tohaku captured movement and light using only ink and expressed space with three layers of shading. With his forceful brush, the artist created a sense of stepping back from the painting as one moves towards it. His rough brushwork produced a scene of pine trees emerging dimly in the distance. The placement of four pine trees is delicately calculated to produce the effect of a refreshing breeze flowing through a grove. The pines standing tall on the screen appear as if extending out of the painting. Those directly in front of the painting will feel as if being pulled into this pine forest. Using merely ink shade and coarse, quick brushstrokes, Tohaku created a scene of pines enveloped in mist in this paramount Japanese ink painting.”
In these two screens, Hasegawa Tohaku managed to create a work which managed to encompass the essence of traditional Japanese aesthetics in the most economical way possible. More than all the gold of shoguns and warlords, Hasegawa Tohaku’s ‘Pine Trees’ stands out as a supreme example of Japanese craftsmanship and, perhaps, the greatest work of art ever produced by a Japanese artist.