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‘Colorful Realm,’ 18th Century Japanese Silk Paintings Make Rare U.S. Appearance

April 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a rare U.S. visit, a collection of 30 Japanese bird-and-flower silk scroll paintings by Ito Jakuchu are on display at the National Gallery of Art, just in time for the National Cherry Blossom Festival in the nation's capital. Judy Woodruff reports on the display of the 18th century Japanese national treasures.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a treasure trove of Japanese painting makes its way to the United States, just in time for a spring celebration in the nation’s capital.

Judy Woodruff had the opportunity to get a first look.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s not every day that an art exhibition receives an exalted blessing, but the 30 painted silk scrolls that make up the Colorful Realm of Living Beings were heralded with prayer, incense and pageantry by monks of the Shokokuji monastery in Kyoto.

The magisterial, but very fragile collection of masterpieces is a Japanese national treasure, painted in the mid-18th century by the virtuosic nature painter Ito Jakuchu. But it is almost never seen in public. Think of the Mona Lisa, 30 of her, or the Van Gogh Starry Night being kept from view on a near permanent basis. Then you would have an idea how rare an occasion it is to see work of such importance.

Yukio Lippit, a Harvard professor of Japanese art, is the exhibit’s guest curator.

YUKIO LIPPIT, guest curator, National Gallery of Art: Colorful Realm took over 10 years to make. It is an encyclopedia of technique and use of materials. It’s also very experimental. And it really has no known precedents in Japanese and East Asian painting traditions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The scrolls of Colorful Realm are on display together for the first time ever outside Japan at Washington’s National Gallery, the product of sensitive diplomatic and cultural negotiation.

The collection is widely considered the finest example of Japanese nature painting. The 30-scroll series is on loan from the Imperial Household. A Jakuchu triptych of the Buddha and two bodhisattvas, the centerpiece of the exhibit, was sent by the monks of Shokokuji, to whom the artist gave it nearly 250 years ago.

YUKIO LIPPIT: It was meant to be used for a Buddhist ceremony one day per year. And so to have it displayed for four weeks in Washington is a very special occasion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The works are part of the centennial celebration in Washington of the 1912 Japanese imperial gift of cherry trees which line the Tidal Basin. The yearly blooming is a rite of spring here.

The artist, Jakuchu, came from a prosperous line of grocers in the 1700s. His daily exposure to fish and fowl informed his painting. But he was also a devoted Buddhist and in middle age passed on his family business to focus on his art and his faith.

And what he was trying to accomplish, it had everything to do with the Buddhist ritual, the subject that he chose and the presentation.

YUKIO LIPPIT: Yes.

Individually, these works are referred to as bird and flower paintings, which is a genre of East Asian painting that connotes auspicious messages. But, as a totality, lined — hung here in this space in conjunction with a triptych of the Buddha, they were meant as a ceremonial backdrop that was representative of a grand sermon by the Buddha in front of all of the living creatures of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why these particular — why the flowers? Why the birds and, in one instance insects, peacocks?

YUKIO LIPPIT: That’s right. That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why these?

YUKIO LIPPIT: The series took over 10 years to create. And there seems to have been an evolution in the nature of the paintings over the course of those 10 years.

Initially, they were fairly, we might say, conventional bird and flower paintings, fairly scripted pairings of different kinds of flora and fauna according to the rules of the genre. But as the series evolves and Jakuchu becomes committed to the idea of creating a large set that serves as a backdrop for a sermon, he begins to introduce idiosyncrasies. He multiplies his motifs. You start having paintings with 13 roosters, 146 varieties of shellfish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This painting is shells. And you were saying it’s a really wonderful example of what Jakuchu was trying to do.

YUKIO LIPPIT: Yes. Jakuchu is a painter who is characterized by a very careful, meticulous attention to surface detail, texture, coloristic detail in his motifs.

But that’s combined with a certain whimsical, fantastical approach to form. We don’t quite know what’s going on here. There’s water on either side. And then you have these monstrous shells that look like dinosaurs skulls in the case of the one in the lower corner. There are various faces or eyes embedded in the various shells.

So it’s this kind of combination that lends this a kind of fantastical, even dream-like quality, very characteristic of Jakuchu.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, right next to it is a painting titled Chicken. And it’s a lot of roosters. And the detail is extraordinary.

YUKIO LIPPIT: Yes, the detail is mesmerizing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there they are, very close together, and the look in the eye of all of them.

YUKIO LIPPIT: Yes. It’s as if they’re craning their necks to hear some kind of ambient sound, except I always enter the painting through this rooster in the lower center who is looking directly at the viewer, who seems to be providing a little comic relief, in fact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because I see look on his face.

(LAUGHTER)

YUKIO LIPPIT: That’s right. That’s right. He might not want to be there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When Jakuchu painted these, he said, it may be 1,000 years before people really understand what I was trying to do.

What did he mean by that?

YUKIO LIPPIT: He seemed to think that he was painting in a very solitary mode and that there were no contemporaries who could fully appreciate his works, but that they would be appreciated a millennium in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he had a high opinion of himself, of his ability, his talent?

YUKIO LIPPIT: Well, he had high standards for his own art-making.

And what’s remarkable is that we keep learning new things about his life and work that do allow us to view his paintings in a different way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Americans today, people all over the world, are so busy. Life is moving at a much faster pace than it was in the mid-1700s, when Jakuchu painted this. Does that make it harder, do you think, for people today to appreciate this kind of work?

YUKIO LIPPIT: I think it does.

I think these are works that are so detailed, so well-crafted, that they really are predicated upon very long periods of looking and contemplation in a quiet milieu. So, one of things I hope this exhibition does is, it really allows people to slow down their metabolism for even a short period of time during the day and really just take in the artworks and the kind of cultural significance of the artworks before having to return to their fast-paced lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We could all use a little slowing down.

YUKIO LIPPIT: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that’s one more reason to appreciate all this.

YUKIO LIPPIT: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yukio Lippit, thank you very much for talking with us.

YUKIO LIPPIT: Thank you very much for having me.

GWEN IFILL: The silk scrolls remain on exhibit at the National Gallery through April 29.