3 Random Inspirations from the Heian

The Heian was a prolific time for the arts in Japan, and gave rise to much that we recognize as distinctly Japanese. The Heian stretched from 794 to 1185, and is generally categorized as a period of peak influence for Buddhism, Chinese philosophy, as well as the imperial court (located in what is now Kyoto). Both had tremendous impact on literature and art, as most was created by and for either the aristocracy or the clergy.

The Heian holds a mystical space in my mind, the imagery of exotic nobility in box-like robes, the stories of emotional clashes and courtesan politics seems like mythology, but the the influence of its culture is very real. The more I read and explore, the more engaging and inspiring ideas I glean. Its otherworldly-ness is absorbing, and there is much that reverberates within me. These are 3 random fascinations of late.


1. The scroll
Much painting of the time was completed as emaki, or scrolls. These were long narrative paintings that the viewer unrolled as they absorbed a story. Scrolls averaged lengths of 30 or 40 feet, and often multiple scrolls told a single story.

As a medium the scroll intrigues me. The intimate and interactive connection, the slowness of unfurling images and a narrative seems full of possibilities.

I imagine an exhibit where one enters a bright blank gallery, sits at a luxurious desk, and is presented with a series of scrolls – not unlike being served a fine meal, with one course following the next.


2. People un-named

It was taboo throughout the Heian period to describe people too directly, and for drawing likenesses. It wasn’t until much later in the Kamakura period that likenesses began appearing in painting.

I love the idea that being too explicit about others is indecent. Perhaps a message from history regarding our age of stardom and obsessive focus on personalities. Lack of clarity seems breathable and ripe for exploration and imagining. The viewer has space to complete a character and creates a path to enter a picture with open possibilities.


3. Color in daily life

There are observations throughout the Tale of Genji, as to fashion mistakes of various courtesans. These tend to be about choice of color for an event, or even the wrong shade in the wrong place of an outfit.

There were clear distinctions of color’s meaning and message, from the choice of fabric, or pattern, to the visibility of certain components of one’s attire. A slightly paler violet would portend a different meaning to an event or day than a darker hue. Again, it’s a counter-point to the world I live in.

I doubt my pragmatic self would tolerate a moment in the politically toned ideas of the aristocracy. But I imagine there must be a middle somewhere between the attention of the Heian court and the total lack of attention to color I feel today.

Imagine knowing what one intends by the colors they choose to wear. Imagine understanding the feelings of others, and the air of a moment, simply by color or pattern.