Within the protective dimness of the display space at the National Gallery of Art, the Japanese bird-and-flower paintings of Ito Jakuchu achieve a transcendent luminosity.
Even if Asian screen art is not your thing, the degree of refinement, composition, movement and narrative in these national treasures of Japan will leave you breathless.
For gardeners, the treat is compounded by Jakuchu’s deep connection to the natural world. On 30 silk scrolls, he captures the teeming, chaotic essence of life at our feet.
Jakuchu made these masterpieces over a 10-year period in the mid-18th century, applying ink, paint and gold to the woven silk scrolls. The exhibition, “Colorful Realm,” can be seen in the gallery’s West Building through April 29.
God, or Buddha, is in the details: The way the autumn sunbeams backlight the red maple leaf, the sad tracery of the twiggy plum tree in winter, the eye-catching streaking of the gumpo azalea.
Jakuchu elevates these moments to the finest art. In one, a flock of garden-variety sparrows alights on heads of millet. The subject idea seems pretty dull, but Jakuchu charges the scene of the arriving flock with giddying energy. A lone white sparrow is a symbol of abundance, writes curator Yukio Lippit in the exhibition catalogue. The millet stalks are bowed by the weight of the seedheads.
By the mid-18th century, the genre of bird-and-flower paintings was well established in Chinese, Korean and Japanese art. But Jakuchu took it to the highest level. He was the son of a wealthy Kyoto merchant who left the stresses of the family business to immerse himself in his art and spiritual meditation. One of his obvious artistic skills is in the play of positive and negative space, a relationship that is always masterfully tense and interesting. This is taken to extreme in one of his earliest scrolls, “Peonies and Butterflies,” in which various species of butterfly make their way to a lower effusion of peony blooms in white, pink and scarlet.
The butterflies are arranged flat and outspread, and the flowers too have a mannered flatness to them. And yet from this two-dimensionality Jakuchu brings a powerful depth and sense of movement in all the scrolls.
Peonies figure large in his work, as do chrysanthemums, but viewers will see his lovely depictions of clematis, morning glories, hibiscus, gourds and lots more.
Jakuchu catalogued the floral universe of East Asia at a time when Japan was closed to the West, when these beauties were known perhaps to a few botanists or, in the case of the peony, in a few Western gardens by way of China. You can see why horticulturists went gaga once these plants began to flow to Europe and North America in the late 19th century.
The exhibit is staged to coincide with celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the planting of the Japanese cherry trees in Washington. The show, which includes Jakuchu’s sacred Sakyamuni Triptych, marks the only time all the works have been seen together outside Japan.
In terms of floral beauty, several are particularly compelling: In “Roses and Small Bird,” white and red roses form a flowery waterfall. Each of the three species is botanically discernible. The China rose is fully double with thorns rendered in red. Amid the cascade of blossoms and prickles, a lone songbird strikes a playful pose. It appears to be acknowledging the artist’s signature and may be an avatar for Jakuchu.
If the stewards of these jewels were to say, “You’re a fine fellow, which would you like to take home,” (we can dream, can’t we?) it would be “Plum Blossoms and Moon.” The full moon is veiled by a gnarled Prunus, the image is full of symbolism, the ancient old tree decorated with the fresh life of blossoms. The tree is so old that it supports fungi rendered by Jakuchu in turquoise. Lippit describes it best as a “writhing, tenebrous depiction of a venerable plum tree under moonlight.”
Chickens feature in eight of the scrolls, and each has an attitude. The backyard fowl, once seen in our own times as a backward thing, is now embraced in an era of sustainability. For Jakuchu, who kept his own fowl, the creatures constituted his “signature subject,” writes Lippit.
In “Sunflowers and Rooster,” we have the strutting male beneath a bower of sunflowers and morning glories. In “Chickens,” 12 roosters and a single hen form a tapestry of reticulated patterns. The artist spent much of his life, clearly, observing chickens. In “Nandina and Rooster,” the bird’s wattle and the grape-like nandina berries seem to parody each other.
The nandina symbolizes new year’s greetings and wishes for many children, writes Lippit. The rooster’s cry was considered a call to spiritual awakening. Clearly, all these works are laden with allegory. They can be enjoyed “just” for their dazzling beauty, though I think the viewer leaves the show empowered as well as joyed. Go and see it, if you can. Your ability to see your own garden and the broader natural world will be forever heightened.