The two exhibitions, one Japanese, one Chinese, at the Freer Gallery of Art, reveal an attitude toward landscape, and toward the living things of nature, different from that found in the painting of the West. The artists of the Far East expected the observer to use not just his eyes, back his memory as well.
Many of these pictures are loaded with allusions the Westerner will miss. That graceful wading heron is a symbol of longevity, so is the turtle on the bank and the branck of pine. The brushwork of the feathers, the needles, and the shell may suggest the handwriting of some repected master. The scene suggests a poem, a season or a place. More than just a view, it is an anthology of references to literature adn legend, antiquilty and art.
In one lacquered box on view the rocks of inland lead and gold assume the shapes of characters. To see them is to read.
The exhibitions are titled "Chinese Album Leaves and Fan Paintings" and "The Four Seasons in Japanese Art." All the works displayed are from the collection of the Freer. Though they vary greatly in color and in mood, all pay homage to a way of viewing nature, its mountains and its mists, flowers, birds and beasts. The works themselves seem beads on the streng thread of tradition that runs through both these shows.
The Chinese works are denser, more demanding and more intimate. They were not made for decoration, but for contemplation. Their scale is the scale of the book, not of the wall. These album leaves and fans are pictures to be studied by one viewer at a time.
The Paintings of the Japanese seem in contrast, almost garish. Their purples, reds and greens are bright, their materials luxurious. The earliest work displayed is an 800-year-old album leaf. On paper flecked with gold appear small silver images of insects, birds and autumn grasses, and all of this is background. On that already beatiful and precious sheet of paper Fujuwara No Sadonobu, the court caligrapher, wrote a poem from the past.
It takes not just a day, but at least a year, to understand a garden, to anticipate its flowerings, to see its flow of growth and change. That same sense of careful informed observation runs through both these shows.
Those green leaves of bamboo, yellowed at the edges, and the plumage of the pheasatn, refer not just to autumn, but go a thousand other pictures oainted in the past.
Though their boundaries are rigid, the artisits here are free within them. A Phoenix suddenly appears among almost scientific studies of more familiar birds. Mynah birds upon a branch tear into an insect, and the blossoms fly. A badger, slightly sloshed, climbs out of the sake bottle for which he is the stopper. "Flowers, Birds and Animals of the Twelve Months," the folding screen by Hokusai (1760 1849), includes a dozen pictures with differing points view. Puppies frolic in the snow, fish swim under ice, birds perch, turtle swim. Because the rhythms are so strong, because the viewer's eye is led from one panel to another, this seem not 12 works, but one. Both shows at the Freer will continue through the winter.