Photo/IllutrationCrown Prince Naruhito takes in the special exhibition, "Jomon: 10,000 Years of Prehistoric Art in Japan," at the Tokyo National Museum on Aug. 23. (Tatsuya Shimada)

Avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto (1911-1996), who famously declared, “Geijutsu wa bakuhatsuda” (Art is an explosion), lived in Paris in his 20s.

Upon his return to Japan, he was bitterly disappointed by traditional Japanese aesthetics, which was based on the concept of “wabi-sabi” (acceptance of transience and imperfection).

But he was saved from utter disillusionment with his native culture by the ancient works of the Jomon Pottery Culture Period (c. 14,000 B.C.-1000 B.C.).

In autumn 1951, Okamoto “discovered” Jomon earthenware and “dogu” clay figurines at an exhibition in Tokyo’s Ueno district. He was carrying a camera, and he fervidly took snapshots of the exhibits.

He recalled that experience in his book “Nihon no Dento” (Japanese traditions): “A sense of ecstasy coursed through my veins. I felt a tremendous surge of strength bubbling within.”

The masterpieces that mesmerized Okamoto are now on display at the Tokyo National Museum, where a special exhibition titled “Jomon: 10,000 Years of Prehistoric Art in Japan” is being held until Sept. 2.

There is an artifact decorated with a face that is impossible to tell if it is human or animal. A bowl has a design that could represent a constellation or even an anatomical chart.

Every piece exudes raw strength and uninhibited creativity.

Jomon art occupies a unique place in the world of global art.

“There are vessels with flame-like ornamentation, and design patterns composed of straight lines as well as curves,” noted Yoshiya Shinagawa, 42, chief of the museum’s archaeology department and the organizer of this special exhibition. “Jomon artifacts represent an art form that is not seen in any contemporary neolithic-era pieces of China, India or Europe.”

The originality of Jomon art derives from the lifestyle of the people of that period. Their society had no king nor privileged classes, and there were no pottery-making specialists as such.

“There were not individual authors, nor artists, during the Jomon Period,” Shinagawa said. “Every community or village had its own distinctive style of art, which was handed down from generation to generation.”

I tried to imagine the lives of those people of 10,000 years ago. They hunted and fished and gathered daily, and fashioned intricate pottery and accessories. I suppose everyone, young and old, enjoyed art.

It is delightful to fantasize about entire families making art “explode,” as Okamoto would put it.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 31

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.