For the first time ever, Japan has loaned all of one of its national treasures outside the country — 30 silk scrolls acknowledged as one of east Asia’s greatest achievements in nature painting — to Washington’s National Gallery of Art March 30 through April 29.
The mesmerizing “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800)” is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all 30 scrolls, each one a sumptuous masterpiece of Buddhist paradise.
“‘Colorful Realm’ is the most important work of bird-and-flower painting ensemble ever in Japan and in east Asia,” National Gallery director Earl A. Powell III told a press conference March 26.
Japan’s Ambassador to the US, Ichiro Fujisaki, explained that this was the first time the owner, Japan’s Imperial Household, has loaned “one of Japan’s greatest treasures” outside the country. The scrolls have been exhibited only twice within Japan, he noted.
Ambassador Fujisaki said that Japan lent the “dainty” scrolls “because our relations are so special, as exemplified in America’s show of solidarity and support in helping us last year.” He did not mention specifically the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
The loan also celebrates the centennial of Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington as a sign of friendship.
The exceedingly rare opportunity to see “Colorful Realm”, which Jakuchū created over a decade in the mid-18th century, is “almost as brief as the cherry blossoms themselves, due to the fragility of the scrolls, which have just undergone six years of conservation,” Powell added.
The restoration revealed Jakuchū’s unprecedented techniques. They included painting on the backs of some silk scrolls to achieve additional depth perception and luminosity, and also meticulously layering pigment, like various hues of red on hundreds of berries in “Nandina and Rooster”.
A layer of yellow pigment on the reverse of “Old Pine Tree and White Phoenix” makes the mythical bird’s plumage shimmer. In “Wild Goose and Reeds”, the artist mixed finely ground egg shell white with animal skin glue to create a texture like melting snow.
Those three are just a few of the most fantastically dramatic paintings in the series. The brown, gray, and black wild goose dives the full length of the scroll toward the pond’s icy surface.
Other especially dynamic scrolls depict mating rituals, like “Hibiscus and Pair of Chickens”. The rooster stands on one leg, his red head upside down, as the hen stretches her neck up to him. The artist raised dozens of chickens in the garden of his Kyoto home to observe the fowl and their movements. He also set free tethered exotic birds like cockatoos and a parrot after he painted their portraits in “Cockatoo”.
Many of his scrolls are ethereal and serene, like “Peonies and Butterflies”, the series’ earliest, about 1757.
Over the decade, he became more unorthodox in composition and subject matter. “Pond and Insects”, which he finished about 1765, is the only one focusing on insects — 67 species. In “Fish”, painted around 1765-1766, “a baby octopus hangs on for dear life to its mother’s tentacles,” as curator Yukio Lippit, a Harvard professor of Japanese Art, described the mixture of salt water and fresh water marine life, each with its own iridescence.
The overall reaction among guests at the private viewing was awe-struck.
“It’s breathtaking. The hair on the back of my neck went straight up, the way it does when you see something truly stupendous, original, and beautiful,” Ann McClellan, author of “Cherry Blossoms”, the gorgeous Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, told me.
Jakuchū was an unlikely artist. The young man, born into a wealthy food merchant family, was described by his university professor as “an ignorant fool,” according to a book written by a close friend, Daiten, a Shokokuji Zen Buddhist head priest. He did not excel at the grocery business, and retired to devote himself to studying Zen Buddhism and painting.
He donated the “Colorful Realm” scrolls, and his “Sakyamuni Triptych” to Daiten’s Shokokuji temple in Kyoto. The temple gave “Colorful Realm” to the Imperial Family in 1889, and kept the triptych. This exhibit is the first time that both sets of scrolls have been shown together, as originally intended, since then.
Buddhist priests from the Kyoto temple blessed the exhibit, and two women in kimonos played ancient Japanese stringed instruments before the preview.
“Colorful Realm” is one of two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities offered in “Japan Spring” — three Washington exhibits of that nation’s masterpieces — all part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
“Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery now through June 17, is the only time that all woodblock prints — actually totaling 46 — have been exhibited. It’s Japan’s most famous series by the country’s most famous artist, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
The third exhibit in “Japan Spring”, also very rare and also at the Sackler, through July 8, is “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples”, a selection of 100 dazzling, intricate scrolls that Kano Kazunobu (1816-1863) painted within a decade.
All three free exhibits by major Edo-period (1615–1868) artists have a wide array of activities.
The National Gallery’s Cherry Blossom Music Festival (March 31-April 29) begins with Japanese Taiko drummers on the West Building Mall steps; its film series “Japanese Divas” runs from April 6–May 5; and children’s movies begin with the anime film “My Neighbor Totoro” on March 31, continuing on weekends through April.
Seeing Japan’s loans of masterpieces, certainly “Colorful Realm”, is one of the very best ways to celebrate the 100th year of their gift of blossoming cherry trees.
For more info:” Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800)”, National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and 4th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 209-737-4215. Free admission. Related events. Catalogue. National Cherry Blossom Festival. “Cherry Blossoms: The Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival” (National Geographic) by Ann McClellan, photographs by Ron Blunt. Brief history of Japan’s 1912 cherry blossom gift: Trust for the National Mall and National Park Service. Embassy of Japan cherry blossom and arts events. World Footprints, www.worldfootprints.com.