Jakuchu and the Age of Imagination at the Kyoto Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan

30Oct06

339px-chrysanthemums_by_a_stream_with_rocksConsidering the Jakuchu revival that’s going strong in Japan, there are surprisingly few images available on line, and those that are available are not very illustrative of Jakuchu’s painterly ingenuity. Ito Jakuchu, whose last name means “like the void” (it was taken from the Tao Te Ching), was a mid-Edo period Japanese Eccentric painter who lived in Kyoto and was associated with various religious, literary, and artistic circles. The so-called Eccentric painters (really a kind of post hoc designation rather than an actual school) became famous for their idiosyncratic expressions and experimentation within the discipline of traditional Japanese painting. As the catalog from the Price Collection exhibit that is currently at the Kyoto Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan puts it:

Jakuchu’s mode of expression, which sublimated the ordinary chicken into a dramatic phoenix-like motif, has been described as ‘heretical’ and ‘phantasmagoric’ and cannot be treated as an isolated phenomenon. His technique of elevating and expressing actual objects through the worldview of traditional painting represented the vanguard of his time, however, eccentric artists such as Jakuchu should have been the mainstream of the late Edo-period art scene.

I went to see the Price Collection exhibit in Kyoto with Marié, who was in town to play a gig with RF, and my friend Akita, who is now a reporter/photographer for the Kyoto News (he currently covers the rather desolate ‘between Kyoto and the Japan Sea’ beat, which he loves — “I get to talk with people and take photographs all day. It’s like a hobby!”). The exhibit runs through November 5th, and if you have any chance at all to go, you must take it. The Price Collection exhibit was, hands down, one of the most incredible exhibits I’ve ever seen and the range and variety of the painting was stunning. The wit, intelligence, and startle-beauty of not only Jakuchu’s work, but of all the works, made me feel an intensity like the feeling that I was jumping inside and I had incredible urges to turn handstands or do some spinning leaps. Usually museum shows, no matter how great, end up creating a restrictive art experience, but the work on display was so far beyond the possibility of enclosure that it melted the museum.

Tigers: The Price Collection is filled with paintings of tigers, and the Kyoto show is advertised by an enormous blow-up of Jakuchu’s painting of a cross-eyed, and rather goofy looking, tiger licking its paw. It’s not my favorite of the Jakuchu paintings, though it is a crack-up — I have a sneaky feeling that Jakuchu might have used a cross-eyed backyard tabby as his model. This is the great rub with all of the tiger paintings on display in the show — there are no tigers in Japan, so none of these tigers were drawn from life. It was not uncommon to paint tigers based on images found in Chinese paintings, and the practice of painting from tiger-pelts wasn’t unknown either. What this gives the artist, of course, is a freedom within convention, a freedom to re-imagine tigerness from within the idea of something never seen. My favorite tiger paintings at the exhibit were “Tiger and Bamboo” (Unknown), which features a tiger with electric-green cosmic ray eyes screaming as it flounces through a bamboo forest, “Tiger” by Genki, which features a young, childlike tiger licking itself and perversely eyeballing the viewer, and “Tiger” by Kokuho, which features a tiger with a massively square jaw, zoiks for whiskers, and an expression which lets you know that he’s just eaten a canary. There’s also the quite wonderful “Chinese Lions” painting by Yoshimura Kokei in which the family of lions bears a startling resemblance to a family of Afro Ken dolls.

Black and white: The most famous painting by Jakuchu is probably the colorful “Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants in Imaginary Scene” (a pair of six-panel folding screens), but my favorite works by Jakuchu, and some of my favorite works in the show in general, were black and white. Jakuchu’s “Figures, Birds and Flowers” (a pair of six-panel folding screens) is an incredible series of paintings. It’s in these simpler sumi-e paintings that you can see Jakuchu’s “void mind” technique at work — a thinking that goes directly through the arm and expresses itself immediately in ink. In sumi-e, there is no covering up — the ink on the page is the act of the hand as it happened, and the act of looking is a recuperation of the flow of the first act in a second mind. Though these are still paintings, they demand a movement of the mind in viewing and this creates a strange feeling. It’s as if your body should be moving too, or as if your being was inhabited by an alien movement that only exists in between your eye and the physicality of the painting. My favorite black and white work in the show, however, wasn’t by Jakucho, but Jagyoku. Katsu Jagyoku’s “Rabbits with Pines and Crows with Plum Tree in Snow” (pair of six-paneled folding screens) is a remarkable work. It’s a thinking snowstorm with mad white rabbits chasing each other up trees in a winter squall while a pair of crows inhabit a menacing counterpoint. Not to be missed.

Daruma: There are also some great paintings in the “Edo Painters” section of the show, including an incredible large-sized image of a hairy Daruma whose hairs flow of out his nostrils, into his beard, and onward into his chest hair. With his gold hoop earrings, in fact, he looks rather bearish, but with an intensity of force that starts in his eyes and brows and seems to express itself as if there were so much bursting energy inside that it’s manifested itself as hair wires jumping out of the body. There’s also Kawanabe Kyosai’s “Enma, the King of Hell and a Courtesan,” in which the king of hell gazes with desire at an image of a courtesan that look like it could be straight out of contemporary manga. In fact, the image of the courtesan reminded me a bit of John Pham’s work (I think it was the nose). And finally, my favorite of favorites, Takeda Harunobu’s “Daruma and Courtesan Trade Robes.” Oh, it’s quite wonderful to see Daruma’s enormous head poking coquettishly out of a beautiful kimono. If only it were so easy to find such good humor outside of glass cases.

Kyoto’s National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAK!).

An interesting Tokyo Art Beat story that connects Jakuchu and Superflat.

Click here for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Jakuchu collection.

And don’t forget the Vegetable Nehan!

(Illustration courtesy of  Wikipedia Commons)



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