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True! “One of the most beautiful exhibitions I have ever seen”- NY Times, Ken Johnson

April 24, 2012

Itō Jakuchū
Mandarin Ducks in Snow, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of
30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
1759, second month
ink and colors on silk
142.0 x 79.8 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

“Colorful Realm of Living Beings”, the rather humble sounding title for a collection of 30 18th century Japanese hanging scrolls by Itō Jakuchū on view at the National Gallery of Art is actually an astonishing artistic achievement; and all hyperbole aside, this exhibition really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The ebullient New York Times review does not oversell the wonder of Colorful Realm.

Many layers of genius — including technical proficiency, compositional bravado, knife edge balancing of verisimilitude and exaggeration, and remarkable juxtapositions of color — are involved in these works, which stem from Chinese and Korean bird and flower painting precedents.  Jakuchū (1716-1800) not only mastered those earlier works through copy and repetition, he expanded the vocabulary of fauna depicted, created winning and delightfully amusing tableaux and established new artistic boundaries within the confines of a centuries old artistic tradition.

The series, started in 1757, took a decade to complete and resided in the Shōkokuji Monastery in Kyoto.  Jakuchū originally gave 24 scrolls to the monastery and later added the remaining six.  He also created the Śākyamuni Triptych, scroll paintings of The Buddha Śākyamuni, Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, which are also on view at the gallery.

A five minute gallery video provides a look at the installed exhibition, an interview with the exhibition’s curator, and excerpts from the press reception and Buddhist ceremony that opened Colorful Realms.

Jakuchū’s compositions range from airy (as in Lotus Pond and Fish and the exhibition’s earliest and most traditional work Peonies and Butterflies) to outrageously congested (Nandina and Rooster and other chicken and rooster scrolls). Indeed, the artist’s use of chickens and roosters, ordinary fowl, is among his many compositional innovations.  He find in them both humor (as he does with the small octopus clinging to the tentacle of a larger octopus in Fish), and a striking protagonist.

It is the technical virtuosity that absolutely astounds — the intricate and delicate depiction of flora and fauna, the commanding brushwork and the death defying articulation of texture. In addition, Jakuchū painted on the reverse of many scrolls adding depth, texture and ambiance to the tableaux.

Itō Jakuchū
Roses and Small Bird, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30
vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1761-1765
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.7 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
Lotus Pond and Fish, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30
vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1761-1765
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.7 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
Nandina and Rooster, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30
vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1761-1765
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.9 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Fish, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30 vertical hanging
scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1765-1766
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.4 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
Wild Goose and Reeds, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of
30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1765-1766
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.3 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

File name: 3234-001.jpg
Itō Jakuchū
Peonies and Butterflies, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of
30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1757
ink and colors on silk
142.0 x 79.8 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
Old Pine Tree and Peacock, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set
of 30 vertical hanging scrolls
c. 1757–1766, c. 1759-1761
ink and colors on silk, with gold
142.9 x 79.6 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
The Buddha kyamuni, from Śākyamuni Triptych, c. first half of the
1760s
ink and colors on silk
142.4 x 79 cm
Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji Monastery, Kyoto

Itō Jakuchū
The Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, from Śākyamuni Triptych, c. first half of
the 1760s
ink and colors on silk
142.4 x 79 cm
Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji Monastery, Kyoto

The Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, from Śākyamuni Triptych, c. first
half of the 1760s
ink and colors on silk
142.4 x 79 cm
Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji Monastery, Kyoto

The entire series is on view through April 29, 2012 as part of the centennial celebration of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to the nation’s capital.  The gallery is seeing record numbers of attendees and has extended visiting hours for the final days of the exhibition.

That the scrolls survive and as a complete set is a near miracle (think of all the 14th and 15th century Italian altarpieces that were chopped up and sold off one predella panel and pinnacle at a time, so that they now exist like the scattered relics of so many dismembered saints).  That the entire set has been allowed to travel outside Japan for the first time ever is another near miracle bordering on divine intervention.  That you only have days left to see it means don’t delay.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 24, 2012 8:57 PM

    Saw the show today – utterly elegant and timeless – so contemporary and fresh – refreshing in the exquisite craft. The flattening out of perspective so 20th century – so graphic and yet true life-like renderings
    – I am bowled over and renewed.

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