There is a minor furore in the UK press at the moment regarding the latest pictures by the British contemporary artist Damien Hirst. Mr Hirst has spent three years making lots of large paintings of cherry blossoms which of course have sold for huge sums of money.
The Japanese have been painting cherry blossom for centuries and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the practice of recording, of viewing, of celebrating cherry blossom became highly sophisticated and a vital part of their living culture. The transience and the beauty of life and its sudden passing is known as mono no aware. This is a Japanese phrase that describes ‘the pathos of things’ and the wistfulness at their passing, something that the cherry blossom has embodied in Japan since the seventh century when the custom of Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) was started. This custom, adopted by the Court at first but spreading throughout the centuries to the samurai class and eventually to everyone by the Edo period, involves the anticipation of the blossom, the taking of formal picnics beneath the flowering trees and the meditation on their swift passing. Today in Japan there remains a keen interest in the approaching season with regular announcements on the weather stations about the expected first blooming in Okinawa and then in Kyoto; and Japanese citizens still turn out in large numbers to hold flower viewing parties.
The current crisis stems from the remarkable similarity of Hirst’s paintings to another artist called Joe Machine (below). Mr Machine has been making his cherry blossom paintings since 2006 and is angered because he thinks his work has been plagiarised. Neither artist seems to have noticed that there are plenty of precedents for the painting of cherry blossom that go further back even than 2006.
The print at the top of the page is by the Japanese woodblock print artist Chikanobu from 1894. The print shows one scene from many that Chikanobu made of the precincts of the Chiyoda Palace. Chikanobu shows a scene of cherry blossom viewing; elegant ladies and children playing blind man’s buff move among the tranquil scene of blossom and flowering trees. In the foreground the top of a screen is just visible, screening the women from prying eyes… all of those except us, the viewers that is. The great Japanese landscape artist Hiroshige of course, made many prints of cherry blossom such as the one pictured below.
The impressionist painters of nineteenth century France also took inspiration from ukiyo-e artists. Van Gogh notably worked in the Edo manner and painted a distinctive version but of almond blossom in 1890.
Finally, the print below is by Kunisada, this time of actors viewing cherry blossom at the start of the kabuki season.