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Colorful Realm of Living Beings – One of Japan’s Most Celebrated Cultural Treasures

One of Japan’s Most Celebrated Cultural Treasures: Colorful Realm of Living Beings – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – March 2012

by Ito Jakuchu

To be Seen in Its Entirety for the First Time Outside of Japan On View at National Gallery of Art, Washington, March 30 through April 29, 2012

One of Japan’s most renowned cultural treasures will come to Washington, DC, in celebration of the centennial of Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the nation’s capital. Entitled “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” (J. Doshoku sai-e; circa 1757–1766), this 30-scroll set of bird-and-flower paintings on silk is the centerpiece of the landmark exhibition “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito¯ Jakuchu¯” (1716–1800), on view at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building from March 30 through April 29, 2012. Exhibited for four weeks only (owing to their fragility), these works will be in Washington during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs from March 20 through April 27, 2012.

Never before shown in its entirety outside of Japan, “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” provides a panoramic pictorial survey of flora and fauna, both mythical and actual, reflecting the highest standards of artistic and technical accomplishment in Japanese painting. To evoke the work’s original religious context, the Gallery will install it with Jakuchu¯’s Sakyamuni Triptych (The Buddha Sakyamuni, Bodhisattva Mañjusri, and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra), which belongs to the Jotenkaku Museum, Shokokuji Monastery, Kyoto. In 1765 Jakuchu¯, who was active in Kyoto during the mid-Edo period, had donated “Colorful Realm” (then comprising 24 scrolls) and the triptych to Shokokuji, 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 Jotenkaku Museum, Shokokuji.

“The National Gallery of Art is deeply honored to present this exquisite set of 30 scrolls to visitors from around the world who will be in Washington for a very special National Cherry Blossom Festival,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “The Gallery has a long history of working closely with our Japanese colleagues to present important exhibitions, including “The Tokugawa Collection: Noh Robes and Masks” (1977); “Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture 1185–1868” (1988–1989); and “Edo: Art in Japan 1615–1868” (1998–1999).”

“This is a great event to commemorate the centennial. These works are very popular and highly admired, but they are rarely exhibited even in Japan. I understand that this is the very first time that “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” will be shown in its entirety outside of Japan. This exhibition exemplifies our strong friendship. We Japanese are so grateful to Americans for showing solidarity and friendship with us after the Great Earthquake of March 11,” said His Excellency Ichiro Fujisaki, Ambassador of Japan to the United States.

“The Japanese loan of a cultural treasure to the United States during the centennial celebration marks another watershed moment for Americans and Japanese. It honors the spirit of the original gift of cherry blossom trees from Japan in 1912, and emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural exchange and understanding. We are honored to have such an important exhibition as part of the 2012 Festival,” said Diana Mayhew, president, National Cherry Blossom Festival, Inc.

Synthesizing numerous East Asian traditions of bird-and-flower painting, “Colorful Realm” depicts each of its 30 subjects in meticulous detail, but in such a way as to transcend surface appearances and capture the otherwise ineffable, vital essence of the cosmos, the Buddha nature itself. Recent conservation of the set has generated an entirely new awareness of its material profile and the technical means by which Jakuchu¯ created each scroll. According to guest curator Yukio Lippit, professor of Japanese art, Harvard University, “It stands as one of the most virtuosic and visually dynamic, yet at the same time interiorized and distilled expressions of the natural world in all of Japanese art.”

Also included in the exhibition are the dedicatory inscription that Jakuchu¯ wrote in 1765 when he donated “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” to Shokokuji; the well-known calligraphy scroll praising it by the monk Ko Yugai, also known as Baisa’o (1675–1763)—both on loan from the Imperial Household Collection; and a handscroll showing the plan for the Jakuchu¯ Room at the Japanese Pavilion in the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, in which Gobelin-weave tapestry replicas by Kawashima Jinbei (1853–1910) of the 30 “Colorful Realm” scrolls were displayed. The textile replicas were themselves destroyed when the ship conveying them home caught fire. The handscroll is being lent by the Kawashima Selkon Textiles Co., Ltd.

The 240-page, fully illustrated exhibition catalogue is being published in English by the National Gallery of Art in association with the Imperial Household Agency; it is being distributed by the University of Chicago Press. Edited by guest curator Yukio Lippit, the volume features entries on each of the 30 scrolls as well as essays by Lippit; Ota Aya, senior curator, Sannomaru Shozokan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), Tokyo; Hayakawa Yasuhiro, head of analytical science section, National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo; and Oka Yasuhiro, head of the Oka Bokkodo Conservation Studio, Kyoto. Informed by groundbreaking conservation discoveries and the most recent research on Jakuchu¯’s life and cultural environment, this volume offers a multifaceted understanding of the artist’s virtuosity and experimentalism as a painter—one who not only applied sophisticated chromatic effects but also masterfully rendered the richly symbolic world in which he moved.

The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden are at all times free to the public. They are located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, and are open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Gallery is closed on December 25 and January 1. For information call 202-737-4215 or visit the Gallery’s Web site at

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