Saturday, April 28, 2012

Once in a Lifetime… Scrolls by Itō Jakuchū

Earlier this month, I had the very great opportunity to visit Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū at the National Gallery of Art.  This exhibition of mid-18th century scrolls is part of the 2012 National Cherry Blossom Festival and the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s original gift of cherry trees to Washington, D.C.

Our local cherries started to bloom as early as February.
The genre of Chinese academic bird-and-flower painting probably developed from more decorative art by the 7th century and was firmly established in Japan, through the spread of trade and Zen Buddhism, by the 15th century.  Although described as bird-and-flower, both Chinese and Japanese paintings traditionally include many other scenes from nature and are deeply rooted in conventional, poetic and religious symbolism.

Itō Jakuchū worked from 1757 until 1766, on his 30-scroll set of bird-and-flower paintings, which he entitled Colorful Realm of Living Beings.  Itō donated the scrolls and the Śākyamuni Triptych, which includes The Buddha Śākyamuni, Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, to the Shōkokuji Monastery, where they were displayed during Buddhist ceremonies.  The monastery became a popular pilgrimage site because of Itō’s work, which was honored as masterpieces even in his lifetime.  In 1889, the Colorful Realm collection was sold to the Imperial Household in order to pay for upkeep of the Monastery, and the scrolls disappeared from regular public display for many decades.

The Colorful Realm remains a cornerstone of the Sannomaru Shōzōkan or Museum of the Imperial Collections, and the Triptych is still owned by the Jōtenkaku Museum at the Shōkokuji Monastery.  All thirty-three scrolls are on loan to the National Gallery of Art through the weekend.
Peonies and Butterflies, c. 1757, ink and color on silk,
from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757-1766
Courtesy of the Sannomaru Shozokan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The Imperial Household Agency
Peonies and Butterflies, the earliest scroll, has been used a lot in exhibition publicity, and its spacious, unpainted background shows how much Itō drew from centuries of prior bird-and-flower paintings.  It is beautiful.  But the later scrolls are mesmerizing, literally sublime.  The subjects are up close and center: birds, fish, butterflies and insects, reptiles and sea creatures, surrounded by flowering shrubs and trees throughout the seasons… maple, hydrangea, nandina, plum and, of course, cherry blossoms… shells, lilypads and grasses, earth, water and stone, all amazingly recognizable and stylized.  The silk scrolls recently underwent an extensive restoration, and the fine layering of paint, sometimes thickly but precisely applied, sometimes translucent, is especially interesting in winter scenes.  Itō even painted “snow” on the back of scrolls to mimic its wintry shadows and transitory nature.

Here is my advice.  If you are anywhere near D.C. this weekend, visit Colorful Realm.  Yes, there is a catalog, but it can only remind you… not replace… the experience of seeing the paintings for yourself.  Even if you plan to visit Japan, you may not have the opportunity to view these scrolls again.  The National Gallery has extended its hours: 10 am until 8 pm today and 11 am until 8 pm tomorrow.  Admission is free.

These paintings are surprisingly large and incredibly fragile, hence their short time on exhibit, and no photos are allowed.  Be forewarned, the scrolls are all displayed in one gallery.  It will be crowded!  But it is worth it.

I grew up in Northern Virginia, and viewing the cherry blossoms (an activity known as hanami in Japan) was an annual tradition for our family.  Of course, the beautiful cherries, mainly Prunus × yedoensis, Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’ and Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ around the Tidal Basin, in East Potomac Park and near the Washington Monument, bloomed exceptionally early this year with our warm spring weather.  But the city-wide Cherry Blossom Festival lasts through this weekend.  In addition to Colorful Realm, you may want to catch a related exhibit, Orchid Mystique: Nature’s Triumph at the U.S. Botanic Garden, before it closes at 5 pm on Sunday.  Admission to the Garden and Conservatory is free.
Orchid in the color of cherry blossoms!

Beautiful Japanese garden inside the Conservatory at the U.S. Botanic Garden
Other Japanese exhibits at the Library of Congress, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Geographic Museum and Textile Museum, in honor of the cherry tree centennial, will remain on display at least into the summer.

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