The centuries-old art of ikebana combines flowers and other materials into arrangements that express a relationship to the surrounding space and such aesthetic elements as the seasons. Ikebana aims to bring out the inner qualities of flowers and other live materials and express emotion.

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Ikebana: Japanese Flower Arrangement

Culture History Art Feb 22, 2022

The centuries-old art of ikebana combines flowers and other materials into arrangements that express a relationship to the surrounding space and such aesthetic elements as the seasons. The artform, which ranges in styles from modern to traditional, enjoys popularity in Japan and overseas.

Striking the Perfect Balance

Japanese flower arrangement, known as ikebana or kadō (the way of the flower), developed into a distinctive artform in the late fifteenth century. Today, there are an array of styles and variations, both modern and traditional. Ikebana is distinguished from other forms of flower arrangement by the positioning of flowers, stems, and other plant materials in relation to the container and the surrounding space. Ikebana arrangements can be large, intricate displays combining multiple elements, or small, simple affairs, depending on the style of the piece.

Ikebana is a popular pastime, and works can be found decorating formal settings like banquet halls, traditional inns, and corporate boardrooms, as well as public spaces like department stores and city offices.

Ikebana emphasizes harmony among the different elements, which along with seasonal plants and flowers may also include dried branches, stones, and even moss, meticulously arranged in a container of ceramic, glass, wood, bamboo, or metal. The traditional art expresses beauty through subtle details, with components reduced to their most basic forms.

Early Beginnings

Ikebana developed during the Muromachi period (1333–1568) and is thought to have its roots in Buddhist flower offerings, a custom that dates back to the sixth century in Japan. Early arrangements were used to decorate tokonoma, an ornamental alcove characteristic of residences of aristocrats constructed in the shōin-zukuri style of architecture.

Tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–91) raised sadō, the Japanese tea ceremony, into a refined art form in the late sixteenth century, giving rise to the related art of chabana (tea flowers). He saw the expression of nature as central to sadō and stressed that flowers should be arranged to appear “as they do in a field.” Chabana adorning the alcove of a tea room are typically austere pieces arranged to reflect the season or taste of guests, and their development had a great influence on ikebana.

Ikebana Blossoms

A proliferation of flower masters around the mid-seventeenth century helped develop ikebana into a distinct artform. Ikenobō, the oldest and predominant school of flower arrangement, was established by Ikenobō Senkei, a Muromachi-period priest who practiced under the patronage of the aristocratic class. His disciple Sen’ō further developed the art, insisting that flowers should not be admired merely for their beauty, but that arrangements should include symbolic elements, such as a withered stem or twisted branch, that represent the grandeur of nature. Author Kawabata Yasunarifamously touched on this aesthetic in “Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself,” his acceptance speech for the 1968 Nobel Prize in Literature.

A number of distinct styles have developed over the centuries. These include the originalrikka style and shōka, using one to three kinds of floral materials, which first became popular in the Edo period (1603–1868). Other mainstream styles today include heika (vase flowers) characterized by wide arrangements in narrow vases, and moribana (piled-up flowers) in broad, flat suiban containers. Stones, moss, and even metal may be incorporated for effect.

Ikebana emphasizes etiquette and manners, with the central objective being to respect the life of the flowers and to enhance the spirituality of the person who arranges them. Mastering a style takes considerable training and practice, and most people spend years learning from skilled teachers.

Dominant Styles

The predominant schools of ikebana are Ikenobō, Sōgetsu, and Ohara. Compared to the 550-year-old Ikenobō, the other two schools are decidedly modern creations, having existed for around a century. Sōgetsu was founded in 1927 by Teshigahara Sōfū and is characterized by respect for individual expression over adherence to established styles. Ohara was founded in the late nineteenth century by Ohara Unshin and is distinguished by the moribana style.

Ikebana classes are available in most communities in Japan, and many schools also have chapters overseas. As people progress in their study, they earn different levels of certification, and in time may even become accredited teachers in their own right.