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D.C. celebrates ‘Japan Spring’ with exhibits by Hokusai, Kazunobu and Jakuchu

WASHINGTON — In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Japanese gift of cherry blossom trees to Washington, D.C., two major art museums have joined forces for a “Japan Spring” trifecta.

On display for one month only, at the National Gallery of Art, is “Colorful Realm,” an exhibit of 30 silk bird-and-flower paintings by esteemed 18th century artist Ito Jakuchu.

Painted over a 10-year period, the silk scrolls show nature at its best — dramatic prancing roosters, black-and-white plumed cranes, fat peonies in bloom, leafy nandinas rich with red berries for a cavorting white phoenix.

They are displayed with the Sakyamuni Triptych, a trio of scrolls showing Buddha and two bodhisattvas, Samantabhadra and Manjusri. The exhibit brings together all the scrolls for the first time outside of Japan.

The show opened Friday and runs until April 29.

At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is Katsushika Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” until June 17.

Hokusai’s “Under the wave off Kanagawa,” a woodblock print of a towering tsunami wave with Mount Fuji in the background, is one of the best-known Japanese images, says Ann Yonemura, a senior curator at the Freer Gallery of Art.

In another Sackler gallery is “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” by Kano Kazunobu.

“They’re lush, they’re Technicolor, they’re tabloid,” says Dr. James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese Art at the Sackler Gallery, of the 56 oversized scrolls. “I dare say, they were not created for devotional purposes but for purposes of spectacular and entertainment.”

Ulak says the scrolls show “the activities, prosaic and miraculous, of the 500 disciples of the Buddha.” The paintings show the “rakan,” or disciples, at common tasks such bathing, cleaning clothes and planting crops. Then there’s a scroll with them taking a tour of a hell where screaming sinners are pitchforked into an icy pond that slices, then dissolves their skins.

All three artists lived in bustling metropolis of Edo, Japan (modern-day Tokyo), and their lifetimes overlapped. Jakuchu lived from 1716 to 1800. Hokusai lived from 1760 to 1849 and his work, including his manga (sketch books), were studied by Kazunobu, who was born in 1816 and died in 1863. Both Jakuchu’s and Kazunobu’s collections were connected with religious institutions.

On the other hand, Hokusai’s “Fuji” prints were commercial ventures. The original 1,000-print run of the 36 pictures sold so well that he made 10 more pictures, extending the collection to 46 prints.

According to Yonemura, then one could buy the now very-expensive color woodblock prints on the streets of Edo for the cost “of an inexpensive meal.”


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