Most of the time, the vibrant animals of Ito Jakuchu’s realm live in darkness. The charged landscapes by Katsushika Hokusai do, as well. 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 two exhibitions, “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1716–1800)” at the National Gallery of Art and “Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, both honoring the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s centennial celebration, include centuries-old works so fragile that exposure to light is always an issue.
Hokusai’s prints from his famous woodblock series depicting Tokyo’s imposing peak must be rested for years between exhibitions. Even then, certain works retain colors so vivid they are rotated with a companion piece, such as the famed “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa,” nicknamed “Great Wave,” on view at the Sackler. 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.
After the lyricism of Jakuchu, the Hokusai exhibition at the Sackler feels shockingly modern. Born in a later generation — three years after Jakuchu began work on “Colorful Realm” — Hokusai found his muse in the life of Edo, later called Tokyo, through the lens of its imposing Mount Fuji, at a time when the volcano was worshiped by cult followers. By focusing on the peak, he broke new ground: “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” launched in 1831, was the first print series in Japan to center on landscape, previously the domain of painting, when other printmakers were churning out images of celebrities and actors. The shift set off a shock wave among younger figures such as Utagawa Hiroshige, and later affected Western artists such as Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Edouard Manet.
Certain images from this series have been well exploited over the years; you can buy just about anything, from a T-shirt to a tie, decorated with the “Great Wave.” For this exhibition at the Sackler, though, curator Ann Yonemura has sourced only the best impressions and earliest pictures. She was so selective that only one print from the museum’s collection made it into the show.
In this fresh look, the atmospheric rendering of mist in one print shrouding the houses and shops of Edo from the roof of a Buddhist temple is still crisply outlined. The scene continues right to the edge of the picture, a technique Hokusai used throughout the series to pull in the viewer.
These moments he captures, spontaneous and brief, of the life around Mount Fuji through the seasons, are steeped in the bustle of Edo that surrounded Hokusai. He shows an experience shared with other residents, offering a glimpse of that contemporary life, framed through the guise of a natural wonder.
O’Steen is a freelance writer.
Through April 29 at the National Gallery of Art, 202-737-4215, www.nga.gov.
Through June 17 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 202-633-1000, www.asia.si.edu.