SHIKI: The Four Seasons in Japanese Art

Categories: Sturt Haaga Gallery

FEBRUARY 18 – MAY 29, 2023

In California the seasons are subtle. So subtle, in fact, that some claim there are none at all. Just as subtle, and equally beautiful, are the exquisite designs of the seasons in Japanese art. Over centuries, a rich literary and visual vocabulary representing the seasons evolved from the aesthetic sensibilities of the Japanese people. This lexicon celebrates the sensual appeal of elements of the natural world but also fills them with human emotions. The aesthetic values of Japan reach beyond philosophical ideas about art and beauty, they are embraced as a way of life, centered around the concept of living in harmony with nature. As a result, the seasonal motifs found their way into everyday life, embellishing clothing, accessories, and other objects used daily. 

SHIKI: The Four Seasons in Japanese Art brings this beauty and harmony to the Sturt Haaga Gallery on February 18. This exhibition from the Scripps College collection in Claremont features common seasonal motifs, from a bowl with wisteria blossoms gracing the interior to maple leaves embellishing a kimono. Natural elements like these are frequently stylized to heighten the ornamental effect when used as decorative motifs. This modest, refined simplicity is regarded as the highest form of beauty. 

The four seasons have also played a central role in traditional Japanese poetry. Waka is a form of poetry that was practiced by members of the Imperial Court around the 7th century AD. Meaning “Japanese song,” waka has several forms, including the short poem or tanka, consisting of 31 syllables arranged in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. In the 17th century, the shortest poem of all was created – the more universally known haiku, comprised of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables. “In all of these, natural and seasonal imagery have reigned supreme, imbuing these short verses with not only the beauty of nature but also the mood and sensibilities long associated with the natural realm,” states curator Meher McArthur. SHIKI will present poetry alongside artifacts and artwork illustrating the importance of nature in the everyday lives of the Japanese. 

Along with poetry and artifacts, more traditional forms of art are included in the SHIKI exhibit. Woodblock prints and hand-painted folding screens brought the natural world into the home, too, with the images chosen to match the seasons. While the upper classes rarely experienced the natural world firsthand, artfully painted and gold-leafed screens allowed them to enjoy a cool river landscape in the heat of summer. 

Printed works known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” made the work of famous artists affordable and therefore popular with the general population. These printed images also helped spread the visual vocabulary among common people. Not only do the motifs represent seasons, as the lotus signifies summer, but they also include emotional characteristics relating to the natural cycle. A symbol of purity, the lotus is revered for its ability to rise from muddy waters and bloom into a beautiful flower. It also symbolizes finding meaning in life, from the Buddhist tradition. 

Augmenting the exhibition, programs will include Gallery tours and talks along with hands-on activities to engage families and individuals in the process of creating. 

SHIKI: The Four Seasons in Japanese Art has been curated by Meher McArthur. Ms. McArthur is an Asian art historian specializing in Japanese art. She was Curator of East Asian Art at Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, CA, Creative Director for the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden, Pasadena, Academic Curator for Scripps College, Claremont, and Art and Cultural Director for JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles.

SHIKI: The Four Seasons in Japanese Art is funded in part by Heather and Paul Haaga.


The Sturt Haaga Gallery is open from 10am to 4pm daily. Free with admission.

Top image:
Tale of Genji: Murasaki and Genji Enjoying the Snow
By Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858)
Japan, c. 1854
Full-color woodblock print (14 1/4 in. x 29 5/8 in.)
Courtesy of Scripps College, Claremont, CA