NEW YORK—Even the hustle and bustle of crowds at The Metropolitan Museum of Art recedes into the calm gravitational pull of the Birds in the Art of Japan exhibition that just opened at The Sackler Wing Galleries for the Arts of Japan.
The exhibition showcases how Japanese artists have depicted bird species of every variety through the ages.
“Inspiration for the exhibition comes from traditional Japanese court poetry and haiku as well as a famous poem by Wallace Stevens,” said John Carpenter, curator of Japanese Art in the MET’s Department of Asian Art.
“When you come into the exhibition, you’re entering a realm of the imagination. In this case, it’s an imaginary aviary. You can come in and escape the workaday world. It changes the way you look at things.”
Artists have often used birds as a symbolic language, given their various characteristics and “bird personalities.” Deciphering the meaning of a painting adds that extra dimension of fun.
For example, cranes are associated with long life and are often depicted with Taoists. A dramatic set of screens by Ishida Yutei (1721–1786) featuring a flock of cranes in various poses is a highlight of the exhibition.
Peacocks embody power and beauty, and therefore wealthy clients would commission them in paintings and would display the works for all to see.
A rare depiction of mynah birds in the exhibition also lends itself to interesting interpretation. According to John Carpenter, “If you’re doing a painting of mynah birds, it means that you’re talking about someone who is resisting authority or is resisting one’s sense of intellectual righteousness or honesty, and so to do an entire screen of mynah birds—you’re probably thinking about that.”
The two early 17th-century screens depicting a flock of more than 120 mynah birds in flight or strutting on the shore with very determined, almost-human expressions were painted at the time the Tokugawa warlords were usurping the power of the palace and the ancient capital of Kyoto.
In cases where the meaning is not that obvious, the exhibition features haiku and other poetry to stir the imagination.
In a kyoka (comic verse), the popular 18th-century poet Zeniya no Kinrachi writes:
It’s a lesson to you
That even the skylark
Soaring in the heavens
Comes down to earth
When night falls.
Though Japanese painting has its roots in China, it is unmistakable in its use of great expanses of blocked-out background, be it golden clouds, mist, or topographical features, coupled with depictions in full detail the delicacy of foreground subjects.
“This kind of composition, the abstraction of nature, the way the pine trees are depicted is very distinctly Japanese,” John Carpenter said.
The golden background often seen in larger screens is also “a symbol of the transcendental realm of Buddha,” Mr. Carpenter continued. “It is a color that’s always been associated with magic, with mystery in East Asian art.
“On a very material level, the gold is representing ostentation, power, and wealth of the people who commissioned [the work]. On another level, the gold clouds—it’s a signal that you’ve entered a fantasy world, an idyllic time in the past, or a time that stands outside of history,” he said.
Some of the works are large enough to create their own space while others invite one to observe and savor every detail in silent contemplation.
“The idea of the mind having [a] contemplative mode is actually related to the use of blank space in Japanese painting,” said Mr. Carpenter, explaining further that the use of blank space in contrast with the ink painting is related to the religious painting tradition where meditation was at the core of religious practice.
The exhibition also features a six-panel painting with an interesting history. The middle panels are the work of the great master Kano Tanyu. The next two panels on either side are by his pupil Kano Naonobu.
The two outer panels are painted by Kyohara Yukinobu, “the greatest female painter of the Edo period,” according to Mr. Carpenter. There are another two Kyohara Yukinobu paintings on display in the exhibition, making a total of four works by her—a rarity for any museum.
Textiles of the 18th to 20th century, including both Buddhist vestments and
luxurious women’s kimonos with embroidered decoration that incorporates fanciful bird motifs, will be rotated into the exhibition halfway through its showing.
Rare and unusual examples of ceramic sculptures of birds will be on display with colorful porcelain dishes of the 17th to 19th century decorated with avian motifs.
Ultimately the Birds in the Art of Japan is a visual feast for the eyes, and for those who like to dig a bit deeper, the works are exquisite pointers for the imagination to soar with.
Birds in the Art of Japan is featured on the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org.
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