The Symbolism of Nature

« Nature is omnipresent in Japan, and dramatic scenery, craggy mountainscapes and the cycle of the seasons profoundly shaped Japanese art. The animistic Shinto faith holds that natural elements and meteorological phenomena exert a powerful spiritual influence on people’s lives.”

“The changing seasons brought about a deep emotional awareness but also in the nostalgia of fading ones; it lies in the wind-bent plants of late autumn that also convey a sense of loss.

Artists drew inspiration from nature to comment on life using an iconography that had been codified since the 10th century. For example, certain plants, animals and celebrated scenic vistas were emblems of the four seasons: cherry blossoms, plum blossoms and the nightingale represented spring; wisteria, the cuckoo and rain suggest summer; maple leaves scattered on the waters of the Tatsura River, the moon and geese stood for autumn; and withered, snow-covered reeds reflected winter.

Natural elements had many other symbolic meanings as well. Cranes stood for long life, as did the pine, bamboo and plum tree (known as the Three Friends of Winter). Monkeys and deer were messengers of the gods, while foxes and raccoons were evil spirits in disguise. In addition, each motif could allude to a well-known poem, event or pun that had been firmly encoded in the Japanese mind for centuries. Such allusions remain valid still today”.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Sori Yanagi, Tabouret Butterfly, 1954