Ikebana (生け花) is the Japanese art of arranging flowers. Translated it means "living flowers". The meditative form of Ikebana is called Kadō (華道 "Path of Flowers"). Both students and teachers of Kadō are called Kadōka (華道家).
In ikebana, flowers and twigs are arranged in bowls or vases. Ikebana is not just about setting flowers, it means more:
- rejoicing in the beauty of nature
- taking time to create a living work of art
- creating something new again and again
- growing further
- cultivating friendship through flowers
An ikebana arrangement is a work of art inspired by nature. With the fine lines of swaying grasses, a gnarled pine branch or a budding flower, we can represent the diversity we encounter in nature every day. It does not take a whole tree to show the delicacy of cherry blossoms - a twig is enough. If this twig, the leaves, and the blossoms are given enough space, they can unfold all their beauty and uniqueness. They should all be arranged into a harmonious work of art in an ikebana arrangement.
Harmony is the soul of an arrangement that radiates tranquillity and inspires contemplation. The natural beginning is expressed as well as the passing away. Ikebana is a path. Eternity is foreign to the Japanese art of flower arranging, for nature and life are subject to constant change.
The art of ikebana is always evolving. Modern, sometimes very abstract arrangements have their place just as much as traditional forms that have amazed the viewer for over a thousand years. The different schools of ikebana cultivate different styles, but the basics of ikebana art are the same everywhere.
The admiration of beautiful, naturally blooming flowers has been ubiquitous in the East and West since ancient times. In addition to looking at them, we can feel the energy or spirituality of the flowers and trees themselves. In Shintoism this is understood as a symbol of the divine, or yorishiro (依り代). In Buddhism, the area in front of the image of the Buddha is decorated with colourful flowers to replicate the world of the Pure Land. Later, offerings consisted of flowers, incense and candles, known as mitsu-gusoku (三具足). The origins of the emergence of ikebana began in the reverence for nature in Shintoism and the offering of flowers in Buddhism.
During the Heian period (784–1185), a variety of recreational activities revolved around the popular interest in flowers and plants, including botanical games and competitions organised by local circles and groups. These events were usually called hana awase (花合わせ) in which players competed to identify and match flower species with either a poem or a particular season. Other popular games developed later as variations of hana awase.
In the Muromachi period, the hana gyokai (花御会) was held at the residences of influential noble families in Kyoto. The hana gyokai is a continuation of the hana awase, which has been held since the Heian period. After the hana gyokai was also combined with the Buddhist event Shisseki Houraku (七夕法楽), the hana gyokai became a regular festival also in the Shōgun's house during the Muromachi period. In writings such as diaries of officials and monks, this festival was written about.
The tatehana (立花 "standing flowers") of the mitsu-gusoku was the earliest form of flower arrangement. In addition, decorations based on Buddhist floral indications were arranged as decorations for waka and renga poetry sessions. The dōbōshū (同朋衆) was an office or title of a person who was responsible for interior decorations such as flowers, tea ceremony, etc. in the Shōgun’s palace. The monk Ikenobō Senkei from the Rokkaku-dō specialised in flowers and collected and wrote on the subject. The flowers, which were originally offerings and decorative elements of the altar, were in time appreciated and recognised as works of art in its own right. Both the office of the dōbōshū and the monk Ikenobō Senkei were first mentioned in the Muromachi period.
When the turbulent period of the Sengoku period (1477–1573) came to an end and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) unified the empire, rikka (立花) appeared as ceremonial decoration in samurai residences. Rikka evolved from tatehana. The arrangements became large and luxurious because they decorated the reception room of the residences and the daishoin (大書院) hall of a daimyō residence. In the courts of Kyoto, rikka with magnificent flowers were often placed in the inner palace (内裏 Dairi), Sentō Palace (仙洞御所) and official residences, which were suitable for the social gathering of people of refined culture. When the Tokugawa shogunate was established in the early 17th century, a new trend in aesthetics emerged under the reign of Emperor Go-Mizunoo and Empress Meishō during the Kan'ei era (1624–1644). Known as Kan'ei culture (寛永文化), this period emphasised the importance of elegance in beauty and focused on simplicity, fine design and a revival of and reverence for traditional rituals, ancient art and classical literature. This "essence of elegance" flourished at the imperial court and grew in importance through works by artists and aristocrats. In the field of flower arranging, Ikenobō Senko received the support of the emperor. In the early Edo period, Kan'ei culture reached its heyday, involving almost all social classes from aristocrats and samurai families to monks and city dwellers.
New school styles developed in the emerging metropolises of Osaka and Edo, modern-day Tokyo. Flower arranging spread through the social structure, from the aristocracy and samurai warrior class to city dwellers and wealthy peasants.
While luxurious rikka were presented in the prestigious rooms of mansions and temples, simple and plain nageirebana (抛入れ花) and seika (生花) gained popularity in the rooms of ordinary machiya houses. A large number of writings with pictures were published and ikebana experienced rapid growth and spread.
The Meiji Restoration from 1868 brought great change and turbulence to Japanese society. Modernisers regarded parts of traditional culture as outdated and praised Western culture. Conversely, as new Western influences came to Japan, traditional Japanese culture became better known in the West. Ikebana was spread worldwide as a Japanese cultural value. Moribana (盛花) developed during this time and became popular. Ikebana was actively included in school lessons for girls. With the modernisation of art, ikebana also changed and avant-garde works emerged. In many ways, from traditional style works to modern free style works, the new age ikebana developed and avant-garde works emerged.
Today there are thousands of schools with millions of people practising ikebana, in Japan and around the world.
When flowers are brought into a room to be admired, a vessel is needed in which to hold them, such as vases, bowls, cylinders or baskets. Even before the establishment of ikebana, Chinese-style vases, such as precious and rare bronze and celadon works, were highly prized. This changed over the centuries and vessels made of plain and earthy ceramics with imperfect-like surfaces from Japanese production became more popular. This Japanese style complemented the selection with its contrast to smooth and symmetrical Chinese ceramics. In the field of bamboo baskets, there are also objects in both Chinese and Japanese styles.
In ikebana, it is important not only to select the flowers and plant material but also to combine them with the appropriate vessels. Vases are chosen according to the style, such as the rikka, seika or chabana. The aim is to achieve perfect harmony of flowers and vessels and to create a holistic work of art of balanced aesthetics. The concept of ma (間) plays an important role in this.
Drawing of a Shōka made of cherry branches in a bamboo vase, by Iemoto Ikenobō Senjō. Illustration from the Sōka Hyakki (挿花 百 規) from 1820
Tatehana flower arrangement as part of the Mitsu-gusoku in a niche in front of a scroll painting
Ukiyo-e wood print by Chōbunsai Eishi of a married lady doing ikebana (Edo period, 18th century)
The earliest arrangements were flower offerings in front of Buddhist altars. The form that developed from this is called Rikka (立花) at Ikenobō or Shōgonka (荘厳華) at Saga Go-ryū. It is a formal and impressive style developed for ceremonial occasions in the religious tradition and is based on the principle of Rokudai.
The rikka style reflects the magnificence of nature and its display. For example, pine branches symbolize endurance and eternity, and yellow chrysanthemums symbolizes life. Trees can symbolise mountains, while grasses and flowers can suggest water. Until 1700, the arrangement consisted of seven main lines, and roughly starting in 1800, it consisted of nine main lines, each of which supports other minor lines. Important rules have been created that relate to the nature of the lines, their lengths and combinations of materials, the use of kenzan or komiwara (straw bundles), etc. Editing in that style can only be done through regular and long-term practice. The main axis, often the branch, is predominantly perpendicular, often the axis is formed by pine branches and is the most distinctive element of the arrangement. Both other lines are arranged at the bottom. The editing centre is filled like a bouquet of flowers.
Rikka-style arrangements were also used for festive events and exhibitions. They are usually quite large, from 1.5–4.5 metres (4.9–14.8 ft), and their construction requires the highest technical and artistic skills.
Nageirebana (抛入花), also shortened later to Nageire (抛入), is an ancient and informal style. The style is known as Heika (瓶花) by some schools.
It is associated with the legendary story of a samurai. The legend states that a samurai, bored on a hot summer day, threw plant material into the small opening of a tall, deep vase on the opposite corner of the room. Thus this style received its name (抛入 "thrown in").
This form utilizes fresh and spontaneous designs that adhere only loosely to the classical principles of triangular structure and color harmony. Therefore, nageirebana is less formal than rikka, which was developing around the same time. Nageirebana was also practiced and around the time that chabana and seika were developing. Chabana is considered by some as another form of nageirebana since the principles of the casual style are similar. At some point later the term was shortened to just nageire.
Nageire is sometimes associated with moribana, and although the two styles share stylistic similarities, the historic development from each other is different, moribana having evolved later.
A classical form consisting of a conceptual triangle representing heaven, earth and human is represented in some schools. In many schools this form is called Seika (生花) or pronounced Shōka in Ikenobō, and in Mishō-ryū it is called Kakubana (格花). The schools practise different variations of this basic triangular layout principle.
Seika incorporates many of the structural rules and classical feeling of the ancient rikka. The concept of shusshō (出生 inner beauty) of a plant is key in the arrangement and is expressed as the living forms of plants rooted in the soil and growing upward towards the sun. It uses one to three kinds of floral materials, arranged in a single vase.
The set-up is basically triangular, with three main lines: shin the central axis symbolising "truth"; soe the supporting branch, and tai, which are branches placed near the base to balance everything. Shin often symbolises heaven (天), soe symbolises human (人), and tai the earth (地). Together these three elements (天地人 Tenchijin) represent the human universe. The number of branches should always be an uneven number. The length of each branch is also prescribed.
In some Ikebana schools in Japan when performing Seika the natural characteristics of the plant have to be respected and the arrangement either done in the upright, slanted or hanging form. Also depending on where the plants would grow determines the position of it in the arrangement. So for example plants from mountain regions have to be placed above those from the lower lands. Plants used should also be seasonal to reflect the respective season in which the arrangement is being made.
In other Ikebana schools Seika is a composite that more reflects and emphasizes the design elements using plant materials. This type of Shoka was widespread in Japan in the 19th Century and is less popular today.
Morimono (盛り物) is a classic form that combines vegetables or fruit with flowers. It is considered by some a sub-form of Bunjinbana (文人花, "literati flowers"). Bunjinbana is inspired by traditional Chinese landscapes. It developed from the Bunjinga (文人画 "literati painting") movement among different Japanese artists of the late Edo period, who however all shared an admiration for traditional Chinese culture and paintings. The style is also known as bunjinka.
Moribana (盛り花) is a style often made in shallow vessels. It was developed at the end of the 19th century with the growing western influence.
This style was introduced by Unshin Ohara around 1890 after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Moribana is not only an expression of Unshin Ohara’s creative departure from traditional forms, but was also a strong sign of the Western influence in Japan. The arranged flowers may be placed in Western-style rooms and entranceways, not just in the tokonoma alcove found in traditional Japanese-style rooms. While distinctly a hallmark of the Ohara school, moribana has become one of the standard forms learned and created by Ikebana practitioners regardless of school or style affiliation.
Moribana is often associated with nageire, and although the two styles share similarities, their historic development is different, nageire being older.
Moribana uses one or more clusters of arrangements in kenzan, a holder with many sharp points into which flowers are inserted, or shippo that has holes, to replicate how water plants grow and how creatures move around in natural ponds. The main feature of moribana is the broad expanse of natural-looking shapes and a mound of beautiful flowers. Choice of materials and how much water shows in front, side, or back reflects the passing of the season. For example, more water is placed to the front during Spring and Summer.
A proper Moribana design uses a flat, shallow container, sometimes referred to as suiban, which allows for the spreading of floral and line materials sideways.
Jiyūbana (自由花), also pronounced Jiyūka, is the free style that developed in the 20th century and offers the most flexible design option within the rules of ikebana. It is also known as Shinka (新花), Shinbana or Gendaika, depending on the school. Very modern forms also use dried or bleached plant material and/or non-plant material in combination.
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