Reverence for the natural world and its potential for insight into the human condition are constant themes in Japan’s artistic history. Flora and fauna provide mirrors—even clues—to the workings of the human soul. More often than not, depictions of animals and birds pay heed to the preternatural quality of the creatures, as if they possess a knowing spirit. The seasons—whose various permutations are categorized and subcategorized by the Japanese to an almost microscopic degree of observation—are similarly endowed with spiritual import.
The many moods of the changing seasons inspire artistic meditations on the fleeting nature of existence.
Artists responded to the natural world with verisimilitude, caricature, cartoon, and painterly evocation. In their choices of subject, shin hanga artists mined a tradition several millennia old, using the natural world as a guide to the human soul.
Whether by overt mimicry of human activity or merely by a subtle, suggestive glint of an eye or tilt of a head, animals were endowed with an inner attitude and knowing spirit fully sympathetic to the range of human aspirations and follies.
In Japan the traditional bird-and-flower prints never attained the level of popularity enjoyed by images of the theater or beautiful women. Nonetheless, several shin hanga artists dedicated their careers to the world of birds and flowers—chief among them, Ohara Koson (1877-1945), whose prints were widely distributed in the Western market.