Japan sequestered itself from the West from 1600 to 1853, when most of the art in three current D.C. exhibitions was made. Yet despite this attempt to shield the country from Christian missionaries, Western culture seeped in.
The paintings in “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu,” at the National Gallery of Art, show the influence of realistic Western nature drawings. European composition shaped the style of the prints in “Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. And the fanciful paintings in “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples,” also at the Sackler, “use such European techniques as shading, modeling and foreshortening,” says James Ulak, the museum’s senior curator of Japanese art.
All the works are susceptible to fading, and so are rarely exhibited. The 33 paintings of “Colorful Realm,” which will close April 29, have never been shown in their entirety outside Japan. “Hokusai” continues to June 17 and “Masters of Mercy” to July 8, but both will have works swapped out throughout, so none is subjected to light for the entire run.
Ito’s paintings use a wealth of techniques, including painting on the reverse side, to create complex, vibrant hues; his humble creatures provide the audience for the Buddha and two Bodhisattvas (enlightened followers), depicted in a style that shows their Indian origins.
There are Bodhisattvas aplenty in “Masters of Mercy,” 56 scrolls painted by Kano Kazunobu between 1854 and 1863, with Buddhist saints battling demons and rescuing souls from the underworld.
Like Ito’s paintings, Katsushika Hokusai’s prints depict the real world. Among the 36 views of Fuji is perhaps the most famous work of Japanese art, the epic seascape often called “The Great Wave.” But there are also scenes of everyday life in which the peak is barely visible.
In contrast, Kano’s landscapes are modeled on China, which “represented the fanstastic,” to 19th-century Japan. Kano’s work, says Ulak, “is one of the most creative reinterpretations of an ancient iconographic form that we will ever see in Japanese painting.”