Washington, April 5, 2012 — The celebration of Japan’s centennial gift to Washington, DC of 3,000 cherry blossom trees gets an extra boost this month. They’re being augmented, as it were, by Colorful Realm of Living Beings, the stunning Japanese bird-and-flower exhibit now at the National Gallery of Art. The blossoms and the exhibit’s paintings by Jakuchū, an artist whose work truly soars, are fleeting: The blossoms will soon drop, becoming a distant memory, and the exhibit will run just one month through April 27.
What unites Washington’s cherry blossoms and Jakuchū’s magnificent artworks is that they share the unselfconscious quality of beauty, given and created. As a result, both can teach us while they serve to enlighten as well.
Given to America 100 years ago, Washington’s cherry trees are living testimony to the power of a gift that stands in the face of what can be argued is its opposite: commerce. According to the U.S. Census, we imported 128,811 million dollars worth of goods from Japan in 2011. That strong, trade-based exchange has survived the ups and downs of an eventful century—including the Second World War that, tragically, followed the gift of the cherry trees some thirty years after the fact.
On the other hand, Jakuchū’s paintings, more than 200 years old, give testimony that creative work, the best of it, rarely originates in commerce but instead in the spirit of gift-giving that the cherry trees exemplify.
The National Gallery’s current exhibit, Colorful Realm of Living Beings (c. 1757–1766) is a 30-scroll set of bird-and-flower paintings that’s being presented in its entirety for the first time outside Japan. These extraordinary, light-filled paintings provide a panoramic view of Japanese flora and fauna, both the mythical and actual varieties.
In 1765 Jakuchū donated Colorful Realm (then comprising 24 scrolls) and the triptych of the Buddha to Shōkokuji, where they were displayed in a large temple room during Buddhist rituals. Colorful Realm was donated to the Imperial Household in 1889. Since then, it has been shown together with the triptych only once, in 2007 at the Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji.
Prepare to be struck by the originality, the spontaneity, the sense that the birds and flowers, painted with mineral pigments, lift off the silk weave and join with you the viewer as if you are one. This quality, this forgetfulness of one’s self, is the essence of how art gets made and received. We know it when we see it and stand in its awe as you will in front of Jakuchū’s scrolls.
Jakuchū’s personal story inspires the search for the creative soul inside us all. Born in 1716 the son of the Masuya wholesaler who lent out space to Kyoto’s grocers in a neighborhood that still serves as a marketplace for food, he left the family business that had earned him both wealth and social status in 1755 to paint and continue his practice of Zen Buddhism.
Jakuchū built his art on the traditional Japanese pictorial symbols, such as plum blossoms and cranes for longevity; the phoenix for the imperial; the peacock to represent culture and prosperity. Yet what emerges in Jakuchū’s depiction of these subjects never fails to startle the viewer.
As one example among the 30 on display, Jakuchū’s peacock seems to rise up from the silk due to his deft application of gold paint on the eye and the tail. These strokes are opaque and in direct contrast to the transparency he generally preferred. In this scroll, entitled “Old Pine Tree and Peacock,” we can actually see the silk surface inside the paint among the feathers of the tail, as the artist made use of the fabric’s strands to enhance the feathers’ complexity and realism.
This transparency of the colors in each of the scrolls gives both paintings and subjects a surprising sense of airiness and light in the windowless room where they are displayed. It’s as if the light itself emanates from the art and Jakuchū’s heart.
When you stand before these wondrous scrolls, you will find that you’ve joined with Jakuchū in his journey of light: You and he will be one.
This forgetfulness of the self is the subject Lewis Hyde addresses in his book The Gift, where he argues that the artist must submit himself to a “‘gifted state,’” one in which he is able to discern the connections inherent in his materials … and to bring the work to life. … Sometimes, then, if we are awake, if the artist really was gifted, the work will induce a moment of grace, a communion, a period during which we too know the hidden coherence of our being and feel the fullness of our lives.
The cherry blossoms bloom year after year, emerging quietly but triumphantly from each tree’s gnarled bark, serving to remind us each spring of the timeless presence of nature’s gifts. Jakuchū’s paintings also remind us of those same gifts, this time through the lasting power of classic art.
But yet we can’t forget nature’s power to destroy, either. March 2012, the month when the exhibit opened also marked, as many of the speakers at the exhibit’s opening noted, the first anniversary of the tragic 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the epic tsunami that followed. That natural disaster still serves to reminds us of nature’s random destructive power, giving impetus to the compelling notion that the fleeting gift of beauty should not be missed when it is offered.
Take this month’s opportunity to join your heart with Jakuchū’s spirit 200 years after the fact. You’ll almost certainly find yourself connecting in a communion to which we cannot do justice here. But what is missing in these words, you will surely find when gazing upon these powerful and moving scrolls.
The exhibit is on display in the West Wing of the National Gallery on the Mall through April 27.
Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a memoir and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster.” Find out more at http://www.maryltabor.com
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