Imagine seeing the Declaration of Independence but a few feet away, and the rag paper has no blemish or damage, and the ink is indelibly fresh, as if the Founders had signed the document yesterday. Imagine having thirty of these documents from the same period lined up side by side, all in the same impeccable condition.
At the Ito Jakuchu exhibit, Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings at Washington DC’s National Gallery (until April 29th), such is the experience of awe: of encountering a myriad of masterpieces, all carefully and scientifically conserved, and recently restored. I literally had to blink several times before it sunk in that the works in front me were done at least ten years (1757- 1766) before the Declaration of Independence was signed. As the founding fathers of our nation toiled to begin the great experiment of democracy, there were artists like Eitoku Kano and Jakuchu who toiled half way around the world in the Edo period, during Japan’s isolation years, birthing some of the world’s most indelible paintings. The accomplishment rivals that of the great heights of the Renaissance, and Jakuchu was Japan’s Michelangelo, and this particular series of scrolls his Sistine Chapel paintings.
I had seen this series of scrolls two years ago in Japan as part of the National Gallery of Art: The Treasures of the Imperial Collections exhibit: Splendor of Japanese Art. Mr. F of Japan’s public television (NHK), who invited me to stay an extra day in Japan so I could attend the opening, asked “So which works do you find special?” I replied “this whole Jakuchu room…” Not much of an answer, as I just listed the entire first two rooms of the exhibit, so I went on to justify myself by explaining that you can see, in a matter of one viewing, what made Japanese art so distinct from the Chinese counterpart, or from Korean influence: as Japanese artists, like Jakuchu, literally began to focus on the micro layers of nature, the depiction changed from the Chinese cosmic sweep of the world captured in a single painting (as in one’s life compressed into a Confucian whole) to the Japanese sense of delicate, refined discipline found in nature.
In that naturalistic, decorative and animistic movement, Ito Jakuchu (1715- 1800) was the greatest and most innovative genius. The entire collection of Jakuchu’s extraordinary works from the collection of the Imperial Palace of Japan, which was revealed to the public for the first time ever in Japan two years ago, has made its way to Washington DC along with Jakuchu’s three major Buddhistic scrolls (never before seen in the U.S.). This major effort, overlapping with the centennial anniversary of cherry trees being transported to DC, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit. The cherry blossoms disappeared early this year because of the warm weather, but Jakuchu is there for a month. We will not be able to see these paintings again, even in Japan, in our lifetime. Do not miss this exhibit.
Jakuchu was an idiosyncratic and bold artist. Strongly religious (his name means “Like the Void,” coined by a Buddhist monk and friend Daiten Kenjo) and tied to the highest level of literati society in Kyoto of the 18th century Edo period, Jakuchu, as all the other artists of the time, sought foreign influences, which were not easy to find. Shogan Tokugawa closed Japan’s borders from 1603 to 1863, exiling many missionaries (in one of the greatest persecution of Christians in history) and foreigners, and forbidding their influence. For this exhibit, one of the restorers discovered that Jakuchu used Prussian blue color imported (probably smuggled) from the West. His visual language was no doubt partly influenced by the descriptive language of European portrait paintings (most likely also kept in secret, too), but he blended them in sharp detail, in humorous and virtuoso celebration of animals, birds, fish, frogs, insects, plants and … the Phoenix.
What makes Jakuchu stand out from his many excellent contemporaries is his inventiveness, and his bold, if not transgressive, use of traditional images and motifs. He had a vivacious and humorous vocabulary, and many of his images read like a Buddhistic koan, not a kind to be puzzled over in profundity, but a type of divine comedy. His vegetables represented Buddha’s disciples, in other scrolls that imitated many ancient scrolls. Frogs acting like a Buddhistic priest was not new, and the famed Cho-ju-gi-ga, a scroll painting of 15th century, no doubt left an indelible influence on Jakuchu, but Jakuchu’s frogs are simultaneously symbolic and real. Jakuchu had a rare gift of being able to depict nature even to the minute details and, at the same time, provide a sense of a cosmic, abstract, and whimsical flow of life.
But it was the depiction of the Phoenix that made me stop as I pondered the images in Tokyo and now in Washington DC. The large banner of the Phoenix painting also greets you as you enter the National Gallery.
Why the Phoenix? One could only guess, but much like the unicorns of medieval European tapestries, artistic imagination takes us to the foreground of what cannot, and does not exist. Yet it is real in a vital and significant way to the day, to define the world that ought to be. Jakuchu painted these mythical birds, not because it was a popular theme (there was only one other Phoenix painting in existence in Jakuchu’s Japan, of northern Korean origin, preserved at Shokokuji Temple in Kyoto where he spent much time), but because he had to somehow delve into the inquiry into the unknown world. He declared his artistic idiosyncrasy in his imaginative landscapes. His were the colors of the independence of imagination.
The Phoenix is painted with oyster shell, crushed and re-mixed several times until it becomes a paste. What makes Jakuchu’s white Phoenix so alive are colors painted behind (the back of) the silk, a delicate and nuanced technique of Chinese art that Jakuchu incorporated. Oyster shell is notoriously difficult to use and preserve on silk; as the silk is rolled to be stored, the shell will flake away. Somehow, Jakuchu found a way to make the luminous white last, and looking at the weaving of the silk (made easier to observe because of the National Gallery’s protective glass is much closer to the paintings than usually allowed), I wondered aloud if he had the silk made specifically for this series of projects: the colors have much to do with the surface they are painted on, as much as the pigments. This series of scrolls was dedicated to his father and his family, and specifically made so that he and his family could be remembered after his passing. They are to be enduring parables of their lives represented in the birds, flowers and creatures – symbols of creative human beings trapped in the cultural isolation of Japan, longing for a universal calling.
Thus, while the fathers of the American Revolution saw the inevitable drive toward a country free of tyranny, for their independence, Jakuchu painted, in the afternoon light of Kyoto, these visionary and memorable works. Jakuchu shared the urgency to somehow warn and enlist the future into the present, and succeeded to do so as evidenced by this exhibit, partly thanks to the Japanese’s impeccable skill in preservation. Jakuchu’s paintings, with many fine examples in the Price Collection (formerly exhibited regularly at Los Angeles County Museum, but sadly not as public today), have influenced countless artists, including Takashi Murakami, the Japanese Andy Warhol of our day, as well as early fathers of “Japanimation,” like Hayao Miyazaki. No doubt these works will continue to enlist imaginative revolutionaries of the future. My early career, too, was shaped by the birds-and-flowers genre, particularly the Jakuchu paintings in Los Angeles.
On American soil, the worn-out rag papers that perfectly capture our fragile democratic experiment, and still remain in a moisture-controlled box in the Capital, give us a glimpse into the delicate and fragile journey of the past. Jakuchu would have loved to have seen that document of our tumultuous history (he lived until 1800); that sense of adventure is captured in the Phoenix after all. And to have the entire series of the Imperial collection of Jakuchu paintings, available for but a few weeks in DC, makes our adventure to Washington DC worthwhile, even with the unfortunate early passing of the cherry blossoms.
Occasionally, we enjoy having contributors curate an entire of issue of the magazine. Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (publisher), commissioned three colleagues to collaborate on this special final March issue. As you’ll gather, the emphasis is on Japan.