Japan’s first formal school of flower arranging developed in the 15th century. At that time, ikebana was practiced by priests, the warrior class, and members of the imperial court according to a strict set of rules. But as other classes began to appreciate the art, tradition expanded to accommodate the less rigid styles they preferred.
Ikebana remains a prominent and disciplined manifestation of a larger focus on nature in Japanese culture. The practice emphasizes the lines formed by the placement of the leaves, branches, and twigs and, when successful, conveys a sense of harmony among the plants, their vessels, and their settings.
The nature of time keeps us from seeing historic arrangements themselves, but woodblock prints record floral displays that adorned gathering places and homes. The prints in this presentation largely date to the Edo period (1615–1868), when an intense interest in botany flourished hand-in-hand with ikebana at all levels of society. During this period, people eagerly awaited seasonal changes and the possibilities they created. Several works on display are surimono—privately commissioned prints circulated among members of poetry circles on special occasions—featuring representations of this practice.
The arrangements shown are formal and informal, ordinary and fantastic. What they share is an appreciation for natural beauty often overlooked in everyday life.
The Arranged Flower: Ikebana and Flora in Japanese Prints is curated by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, the Art Institute of Chicago.