Editors' pick

Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800)

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Editorial Review

National Gallery and Sackler exhibits honor National Cherry Blossom Festival
By Danielle O’Steen
Saturday, April 7, 2012

Most of the time, the vibrant animals of Ito Jakuchu’s realm live in darkness. Like the cherry blossoms, their time in the limelight is brief, anticipated and luminous.

Unlike the blossoms, they’re still on view, at least for now.

The paintings by Jakuchu, 30 bird-and-flower scrolls from his historic “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” series, can be exhibited for merely one month at a time. The National Gallery exhibition, curated by Harvard University professor Yukio Lippit, offers only the second showing since the 19th century, and the first ever outside Japan.

So forget the cherry blossoms, they’ll be back next year. The Jakuchu scrolls, on the other hand, are making this special trip from the Japanese imperial collection, to which they were donated in 1889 after remaining at the Shokokuji monastery in Kyoto since the artist gifted them in 1765, along with a Buddhist triptych also in the exhibition.

The series, dated from 1757 to 1766, is filled with creatures both real and mythical, rendered in excruciating detail. The paintings create a lively cast of characters to sit in audience for the Buddha and two bodhisattvas in the accompanying triptych. Although it might be hard to catch a quiet moment with the paintings now, with the clamoring crowds the exhibition is attracting, the scrolls demand reverence, having been crafted with such mastery that they pulse with life.

Their vitality is the result of careful layering by Jakuchu, who painted both the front and the back of the silk panels, a discovery made recently after a six-year conservation that began in 1999. In a picture of a white peacock amid peonies and a pine tree, for instance, the feathers painted in a network of fine brush strokes are illuminated by ocher paint on the back, adding depth and radiance to the figure.

In Jakuchu’s pictures, every surface is given the same intricate treatment, from petals and spots of pollen to the most elaborate plumes and fish scales. As a fourth-generation head of a Kyoto business that leased space to grocers, Jakuchu was an unlikely artist. He turned to painting only after retiring at 40, and studying both Japanese and Chinese art. But it was in his real-life observations, such as of the animated chickens he raised that fill eight images, that Jakuchu shines. His scenes blend an almost scientific approach with a fantastical edge, where a mandarin duck in startling detail is perched on a surrealist rock formation beside an arrangement of willow branches that stretch in an unlikely manner.