The Floating World and Kacho-ga
A theme within ukiyo-e art which has been of great influence on my art work and a more visible form of
wabi-sabi sentiment is kachō-ga (or kachō fugetsū) meaning ‘flowers and birds’ (Narazaki 1970). The
aim of kachō-ga is never simply to portray a botanical or representational depiction of flowers or birds,
but to express a subjective emotion. First developed in the Shinto-influenced Heian period in traditional
Japanese painting (794-1185), kachō-ga can also mean ‘wind and moon’ such as a breeze on a fine day
or the full moon at night. More importantly, the meaning of kachō-ga refers to the mind that finds
pleasure in the miniscule detail or moment of interaction where the observer witnesses the song of
birds, trees rustling in the breeze, or an insect zooming past. Kachō-ga is about the contemplation of
natural phenomena and the aesthetic observation of such fleeting beauty. Kachō-ga by extension also
pertains to a refined, poetic way of life that finds chief pleasure in the study of nature in keeping with
the ancient Buddhist and Shinto religious beliefs that the genre emerged from.
Rather than seeing a landscape vignette objectively, Japanese art has tended to interpret the object
philosophically as a subjective parallel to human life. This is not to say that a theoretical or objective
attitude was absent; the apprentice of kachō-ga would apply himself to sketching birds and flowers
from life with precision and there were certainly botanical and zoological illustrations produced in Japan
(Narazaki 1970). Despite these exceptions, the greatest value in kachō-ga was deemed its highly
emotive approach and the artist’s relationship to the subject matter.
This idea is exemplified by the convention in kachō-ga of coupling things together to suggest a particular
season, time of day or associative symbolic content of the motif. Of the many hundred examples
include: pine tree and eagle; bamboo and tiger; plum blossoms and the moon; peonies and butterflies;
lonely creeks with solitary fishermen. The point of these combinations, which occur in many forms in
Japanese art, poetry and theatre, is to combine objects to create a vehicle for the artist’s own emotions
and ideas, or particular view of life in a pleasing harmony of associations. The full moon with a tree
shedding autumn leaves may allude to a melancholic longing for a loved one, or a brightly flowering tree
with a family of butterflies may allude to a blissful domestic situation. In every case, the artist of kachōga
has never viewed the birds, trees and moon as beautiful objects in their own right, instead they are
invested with the artist’s own idealistic personal yearnings.
The Buddhist sense of impermanence was translated often by well-known ukiyo-e artist Katsushika
Hokusai through the depiction of small moments of pure enjoyment witnessed up-close in nature, such
as Peonies and Butterfly . The peonies elegantly sway in the breeze as a butterfly peacefully
meanders by. In the leisure-seeking Edo age, to sit and watch such a scene ‘was one of the greatest
pleasures that life had to offer’ (Narazaki 1970, 33).
The grouping of things together, is a sensibility of associating nature with
aesthetic forms in contrast, harmony or disparity with other objects. Witnessing the seasons in Japan is
an integral part of everyday life and intrinsic to Japanese culture. As the seasons change and produce
different phenomena, parallels are drawn between nature and the minutiae of human life. A plant may
grow and die in one season, another may change each year, some things have a life span of centuries or
eons, changing subtly on cue in response to the laws of nature. From these observations, the Japanese
have a year-round calendar filled with ritual flower viewings, tree viewings, moon and snow viewings,
endless festivals and events that mark these natural occurrences. In art and in everyday life, there are
many examples of how traditional Japanese culture has cultivated a high level of aesthetic sensibility in
everyday life with an apparent sense of graciousness about the blessings of nature.
The kachō-ga print was also a means to explore tenets of the wabi-sabi ideal for both the artist and the
audience through seeking fukinsei (asymmetry, irregularity), kanso, (simplicity), shizen (without pretense,
natural), yūgen (subtly profound grace, not obvious) and seijaku (tranquillity). The prints offer something
more than just material representations of birds and flowers. They signify the seasons of the year and
display the workings of the artist’s soul. A bird embodied in a painting, fluttering above flowers or the
branches of trees, represents the spirit of the subject, not merely its actuality.
The uniqueness of Japanese art lies in its ability to convey a sense of transience together with the eternal cycle of nature, such as the way that spring returns each year with its blossoms.