Birds with human qualities are often Disney characters. The Freer’s “Edo Aviary” — scrolls and other avian paraphernalia from Japan’s Edo era (1615 to 1868) — proves that anthropomorphized birds are, when portrayed realistically, darned unsettling.
Kishi Ganku’s 1802 “Eagle,” left, and 1788 “Rooster, Hen and Chicks,” right, “are particularly rich in this way,” says James Ulak, the museum’s senior curator of Japanese art, via email. Both depict creatures whose postures and facial features suggest a “distinctive, humanlike personality.”
And those personalities aren’t particularly pleasant. Ganku’s works were part of a broader move by Edo-era artists toward “weird, exotic, dark and slightly bent views of the world,” Ulak says. This trend was, he notes, “not universally appreciated.”
1. Like many other Edo artists, Kishi Ganku depicted birds with impressive physical accuracy — a reflection of the passion for scientific observation that came to Japan via books shipped in from Europe.
2. Ganku’s 1788 “Rooster, Hen and Chicks” is a satirical painting, Ulak says. While the rooster typically symbolizes virtues such as courage and fidelity in Chinese, Korean and Japanese art, this one appears menacing.
3. Then, there’s the dragonfly being fed to a chick. Look closely at the dragonfly’s eyes; the insect is terrified. “The artist seems to be saying that when you look beneath the veneer of nobility, you see the ugly struggle for survival,” Ulak says.