Saturday, April 7, 2012
Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800)
When: through April 29, 2012
Well, that explains what all the work was going on in the National Gallery over the past weeks. The middle of the main hallway was closed off, and I spent lots of time wandering through side galleries to get to the East Building. They've been preparing for this exhibit of Japanese bird-and-flower paintings, and it's been worth the wait and detours.
This series of 30 paintings on scrolls is considered to be the greatest work of bird-and-flower paintings in Japanese art. I'm certainly not qualified to make such a statement, but the paintings are so lifelike and so beautiful, that I'm willing to take that assertion as fact. In addition to these paintings of the natural world, there are three other paintings on display: of the Buddha and two Bodhisattvas, known as the Sakyamuni Triptych. The works are so fragile that they can only be displayed for a short time (the show is at the National Gallery for only a month). This is the first time they have ever been displayed outside Japan; they're here in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Japanese gift of the cherry trees to Washington, DC.
The artist, Ito Jakuchu, was one of the most inventive painters of the Edo period (1615-1868), and was not allied with any particular school of painting - he went his own way, and what a way it was. The paintings are absolutely stunning - the colors, the brushwork, the attention to detail - all amazing. The Sakyamuni Triptych is where I started my visit. I noticed the swastika on the Buddha's chest, and was reminded that this is an ancient religious symbol. Sadly, it was appropriated by the Nazis, so to Western eyes it symbolizes nothing but anti-Semitism, horror and death. I gather it means, among other things, eternity in the Hindu religion. The Buddha's two companions, the Bodhisattvas, are riding unlikely animals - one is on a lion and the other on an animal I can't identify, but which looks elephantine.
These creatures stand in contrast to the completely natural and lifelike creatures in the 30 scrolls on either side of the Triptych. Apparently, Jakuchu kept eight chickens of his own, in order to better capture their movements and features in his paintings. In order to enhance his paintings, he painted the back of the scrolls - the effect is wonderful. Certain colors seem to glow from the scrolls. One of the scrolls featuring marine life shows the first example of the use in East Asia of the synthetic dye called Prussian Blue. I'll see this color again when I head to the Sackler for their exhibit of fragile Japanese art, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, according to the notes accompanying the piece - the first time I've gotten a "preview of coming attractions," I think.
One of my favorite pieces is one entitled "Maple Tree & Small Birds." The wonderful autumn colors of the maple painted in 1765 are just the same as the ones I see in my neighborhood in the 21st century. Much has changed in the world since that painting was first done; the beauty of the natural world has a permanence that is comforting in its own way.
In addition to the colors and the brushwork and the wonder of these works having been preserved for well over 200 years, I like very much the allegorical nature of the paintings. You can look at them strictly for their beautiful depiction of nature, but you can also see that these paintings are meant to represent other things: desirable qualities and long-lasting relationships as well.
Verdict: I can't recommend this exhibit enough. Take time to see this show, as it's unlikely you will have the chance to see it again. Expect crowds much larger than those you get at the Sackler and Freer (the usual places I go to see Asian art).