Ito Jakuchu: A Man with No Age
April 16- June 12, 2011
2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana, CA 92706
(714) 567-3600 www.bowers.org
Museum hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am – 4 pm
By Meher McArthur, freelance Asian Art Curator, Author and Educator
As we watch Japan and its people come to terms with the utter devastation that nature can inflict on humanity, we can find some comfort in the glorious celebration of nature’s awesome beauty apparent in the paintings of one of Japan’s most celebrated artists, Ito Jakuchu.
The exhibition, Ito Jakuchu: A Man with No Age, is on view at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana until June 12, and is drawn from the collection of Etsuko and Joe Price, local collectors who have long appreciated the talent and spirit of this unique artist. A masterful painter and ardent follower of Zen Buddhism, Jakuchu excelled in capturing the essence of birds, animals and flowers with the deft, inventive touch of his brush.
Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) was from the city of Kyoto. The eldest son of a grocer whose shop was located in downtown Kyoto, he took over the family business after his father died in 1739. However, he soon knew that his talents lay elsewhere, and in 1755 at the age of 39, he turned over the shop to his brother in order to focus on painting.
He probably began painting in his twenties under an artist of the Kano school, which focused primarily on Chinese-style landscapes and bird-and-flower images adapted to suit Japanese tastes and interiors. In his early thirties, Jakuchu built a two-story studio on the west bank of the Kamo River and called it Shin’en-kan (Villa of the Expansive Heart), after a phrase from a poem by an ancient Chinese poet. From this studio, he apparently enjoyed great views of the city and painted so many fine paintings that by his late thirties he had earned a reputation as a notable artist. It is evident from the detail and lifelike appearance of his paintings of chickens and other animals in this period that he based his work largely on actual observation.
In his thirties, he befriended a Zen Buddhist monk, Daiten Kenjo, who helped him gain access to the fine Chinese paintings in the private collections of some of Kyoto’s Zen Buddhist temples. Through Daiten, he was also introduced to new social, literary and artistic circles, and it is thought that Daiten may have been the one to first conceive of the name “Jakuchu,” a term meaning “like the void” from the ancient Chinese text, the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching).
Over the years, Jakuchu received many commissions from temples and shrines to paint the wooden panels and fusuma screens that embellished the interiors of their main buildings. He also famously spent ten years painting a series of 30 scroll paintings depicting animals, birds and plants to accompany scroll paintings of the Buddha and two bodhisattvas, all of which he presented as a gift to the Shokokuji temple around 1765. Know as the Doshoku Sai-e (“Colorful
Realm of Living Beings”), this series of paintings is one of Jakuchu’s great masterpieces and is now in the collection of the Imperial Household Agency.
The painting Rooster, Hen and Hydrangeas from the Price Collection resembles paintings in the Doshoku-Sai-e series. Painted meticulously with delicate brush strokes to depict every detail of the birds’ feathers and the flower petals, and lavishly colored with vibrant mineral pigments, the work is a painstaking and exquisite study of living creatures interacting with each other and with their natural environment. This refined, sumptuous style gained Jakuchu great acclaim in the Kyoto art world and established him as one of the nation’s most accomplished painters.
However, he did not restrict his work to one single style, as we can see in another painting of a family of chickens in the Price Collection. Here, Jakuchu uses a thick brush and varying tones of sumi ink to capture the energy and flourish of the cocky rooster as he struts around proudly with his family. Dark, dry strokes create drama and energy in his tail, while paler, wetter brushstrokes and washes give his feathers a light, almost fluffy texture. Although the painting is rendered in fewer brush strokes and features less detailing than the polychrome painting, the essence of the rooster is manifested just as completely. Jakuchu, a master of the brush, was clearly also a keen observer of the natural world.
In some cases, however, he was not able to observe a particular animal up close. His painting Tiger, also in the Price Collection, is actually based on a Chinese painting of a tiger from the Southern Song-dynasty (1127-1279), and in the accompanying inscription, he seems almost
apologetic about the fact: “When painting a material phenomenon, I would not paint it but from truth. Because there are no ferocious tigers in Japan, I have imitated the painting of Mao Yi.” In this charming portrait of a tiger licking his paw, Jakuchu more than imitates Mao Yi’s tiger; he animates it by texturing its fur with thousands of tiny brushstrokes and giving the beast an intense, almost comical stare. Even though he was not painting from reality, his experience observing animals and his vivid imagination enabled him to depict a creature full of life and character.
Nowhere are his extraordinary imagination and considerable artistic skills united so masterfully than in his famous pair of screens Birds, Animals and Flowering Plants – arguably one of the most extraordinary paintings ever created in Japan, or anywhere else in the world. Each of the screens features a garden scene, one filled with animals and the other with birds. Jakuchu created these scenes by dividing the surface into a grid of more than 43,000 tiny squares, and coloring each square individually, often with multiple colors, like a painted mosaic. An artistic tour-de-force that must have taken many years to complete, this pair of screens may be his most intense artistic meditation upon the wonders of the natural world.
These spectacular paintings of birds, animals and plants, so elegantly displayed at the Bowers Museum, were painted by a Japanese artist over 200 years ago, but their visual exuberance resonates strongly with viewers today. Created by a man who was not only technically gifted as an artist but also profoundly influenced by the teachings of Buddhism, these paintings are a reminder that while nature has the power to destroy, it is also capable of inspiring masterpieces and healing souls.