This autumn sees a rare exhibition that explores the art and culture of the Jomon era (11,000-400 BC). It is 20 years since the last exhibition was held in Paris in 1998.
The show comprises 64 pieces, including six National Treasures and 33 Important Cultural Properties.
The Jomon period began to develop about 13,000 years ago, during the Neolithic period. Around this time, early man had chosen to settle in one place rather than being continuously nomadic, which encouraged the development of hunting and gathering, the creation of utensils for daily use, in terracotta to cook food and in stone and bone for hunting and fishing. In pottery of the Jomon period, there is an innovative and powerful aesthetic in dogu figurines that is both mysterious and yet full of humour. These pieces are remarkable evidence of the sophistication of the people who created them.
The ice age had ended shortly after the beginning of the Jomon era and the Japanese archipelago enjoyed a mild climate where hunting, fishing and gathering and other settler activities were able to develop. It is the appearance of pottery that marks the beginning of age and the period takes its name from the motifs that were made by pressing ropes into the clay.
The first section of the exhibition explores these 10,000 years of plastic arts through their evolution of shape and the distinctive pottery patterns: nail, finger, rope and shell markings, along with the application of clay and engraved drawings on pots.
The second section is devoted to objects that explore the beliefs and spirituality of the Jomon people. Anthropomorphic dogu (baked clay figurines) are a remarkable example of the aesthetics of the spiritual realm. The majority of the figures are in feminine form, the oldest representing simple busts with generous breasts and are probably related to fertility, harvesting, or food resources.
While infant mortality was high, dogu of pregnant, breastfeeding or childbirth-giving women, as well as children’s handprints on clay plates, seem to express the intense desire of parents to see their offspring to thrive and remain healthy. Other figurines were used in funerary rites or used as ossuary offerings, which shows the relationships of the Jomon people with the afterlife.
Hunting scenes adorning jars and zoomorphic dogu are also thought to be related to certain belief systems. The wild boar occupies a large place in their prehistoric bestiary due to its importance in daily life and survival. Even everyday objects such as pottery for cooking and food storage, axes, wicker baskets or hooks have a striking beauty beyond their functional use.
Equally surprising are the lacquered vessels presented in the last section: it is hard to believe that the use of lacquer dates back to such a remote a time.
Jomon, The Birth of Art in Prehistoric Japan, Maison de la culture du Japan a Paris, until 8 December, mcjp.fr