Considered one of Japan’s cultural treasures, a 30-scroll set of nature paintings from the 1700s is being shown for the first time in its entirety to the West at an exhibit in Washington.
Entitled “Colorful Realm of Living Beings,” the paintings were created more than 250 years ago by artist Ito Jakuchu, consisting of intricate images of birds, flowers, insects, fish and other animals on vertical silk scrolls. It is open to the public at the National Gallery of Art until April 29.
To evoke the original religious context of the nature paintings, curators paired the paintings with another of Jakuchu’s masterpieces, the “Sakyamuni Triptych.” The piece shows three Buddhist deities overlooking the bird-and-flower paintings, serving as a centerpiece for the exhibition.
Since 1889, the fragile silk scroll paintings have been kept in separate locations. The nature paintings were donated to Japan’s royal family and have been held ever since by the world’s oldest monarchy. The Buddhist triptych is held at the monastery where Jakuchu originally left his works.
Even though his masterpieces are kept mostly out of view in order to help preserve them, Jakuchu has become Japan’s most famous pre-modern artist, said guest curator Yukio Lippit, a Harvard University professor of Japanese art.
“Awareness of the painter has risen again only in recent years,” Lippit said.
While Jakuchu’s works were famous around the time they were painted, his achievements were later forgotten in time.
Four Zen Buddhist monks from the Shokokuji Monastery in Kyoto, where Jakuchu left his paintings, also held a blessing ceremony to complete the exhibit’s installation in Washington. They burned incense, chanted Buddhist hymns, and one monk knelt before the Buddhist paintings. This ceremony was performed in part to honor the artist’s family, and as a call for world peace.
The four-week exhibition was launched in celebration of the centennial of Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the U.S. in 1912 as a symbol of friendship. Other rarely seen works by Japanese artists also are on display at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery of Art to mark the momentous occasion.
Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, said that the Japanese were eager to partner for the exhibit even after the devastating earthquake Japan suffered just a year ago.
Japanese Ichiro Fujisaki said the exhibit was prioritized because of his nation’s special relationship with the United States.
Showing such cultural treasures from Japan would be similar to touring the works of Leonardo da Vinci or other great European painters, he said. “Even for Japanese eyes,” he said, “it may be 50 years (before) you can see this again.”