The Washington Post

Winged Creepers

Meet the weird birds of 'Edo Aviary'

Kishi Ganku’s 1802 “Eagle” is one of a few anthropomorphized birds in the Freer Gallery of Art’s “Edo Aviary.”

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.”

Kishi Ganku might have been making a satirical statement with “Rooster, Hen and Chicks” (1788).

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.

Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive and 12th Street SW; free, through Aug. 4; 202-633-4880. (Smithsonian)



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Be a man and cry
Program turns prisoners into poets
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
Play Videos
The signature dish of Charleston, S.C.
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
The most interesting woman you've never heard of
Play Videos
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
The art of tortilla-making
A man committed to journalism, caught in the crossfire
Play Videos
Tips for (relatively) stress-free dining out with kids
How to get organized for back to school
How the new credit card chip makes purchases more secure
Next Story
Rudi Greenberg · March 6, 2013