A 30-scroll set of nature paintings from the 1700s, considered a Japanese cultural treasure, is being shown in its entirety for the first time outside of the country at an exhibit in Washington.
Created more than 250 years ago by artist Ito Jakuchu and nowadays owned by Japan’s royal family, the “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” consists of intricate paintings of birds, flowers, insects, fish and other animals on vertical silk scrolls. It opens to the public Friday at the National Gallery of Art and will be on view through April 29.
For only the second time in 120 years, the nature paintings are paired with Jakuchu’s “Sakyamuni Triptych.” In this piece, three Buddhist deities overlook the bird-and-flower paintings to serve as the exhibit’s centerpiece. The pairing, curators said, evokes the original religious context of the nature paintings as objects of worship.
Since 1889, the fragile silk scroll paintings have been held in separate locations. The nature paintings were donated to Japan’s royal family, the world’s oldest monarchy, and held by them ever since. The Buddhist triptych is held at the monastery where Jakuchu originally left his works.
Though his masterpieces are kept mostly out of view to help preserve them, Jakuchu has become Japan’s most famous pre-modern artist, said guest curator Yukio Lippit, a Harvard University professor of Japanese art. While his works were famous around the time they were painted, his achievements were later forgotten to a certain extent.
“Awareness of the painter has risen again only in recent years,” Lippit said, proceedingto note that, outside Japan, the U.S. is one of the only places where Jakuchu’s works have been recognized and presented. In 1904, the Japanese pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair featured a room adorned with his works.
This special four-week exhibition celebrates the centennial of Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the U.S. in 1912 as a symbol of friendship. Other rarely seen works by Japanese artists also are on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery of Art to mark the occasion.
Four Zen Buddhist monks from the Shokokuji Monastery in Kyoto, where Jakuchu left his paintings, held a blessing ceremony Monday to complete the exhibit’s installation in Washington. They burned incense, chanted prayers dedicated to the Buddha, and one monk knelt before the Buddhist paintings. Their prayers were dedicated in part to honoring the artist’s family and calling for world peace.
When he painted “Colorful Realm” between 1757 and 1766, Jakuchu’s painting style was both experimental and classical. He borrowed from traditions of Chinese bird-and-flower painting but also experimented with color. He took the traditional Japanese palette of about 20 colors and carefully mixed, shaded and layered his pigments. Perhaps most notably, Jakuchu applied paint to the backside of the silk to be visible from the front in a muted way through the silk weave.
“What we are witnessing on the front is due in considerable part to what’s going on behind the surface of the painting,” Lippit said. “There’s a strategic process ... to create an effect of a kind of subterranean glow and inner life to the work.”
Curators have discovered new details about his techniques through conservation of the scrolls and research in the past decade. A recent analysis discovered synthetic Prussian blue dye in one of the scrolls, which would be the earliest known usage of this European-imported dye in East Asia.
Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, said the Japanese were eager to partner for the exhibit even after the devastating earthquake in the country just one year ago. Japanese Ichiro Fujisaki said the exhibit was a priority because of his nation’s special relationship with the United States.
Masayuki Inoue, the deputy director for cultural affairs at newspaper publisher Nikkei Inc., which co-organized the exhibit, said it was an expensive undertaking to transport and insure the historic paintings for exhibition thousands of kilometers from their homes, though he would not disclose the cost.
Showing such cultural treasures from Japan would be similar to touring the works of Leonardo da Vinci or other great European painters, he said.
“Even for Japanese eyes,” he said, “it may be 50 years [before] you can see this again.”