Ito Jakuchu: Quite the rare bird

Cockatoo, 1771
The best time to see Jakuchu was back in 2000 or 2006, when there were two big exhibitions that aimed to re-evaluate the under-appreciated 18th-century Kyoto painter.

Now that re-evalutation has picked up plenty of steam and we are now experiencing a powerful "Jakuchu Boom,” which means that "300th Anniversary of his Birth: Jakuchu” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art is a busy and crowded exhibition – not ideal conditions for appreciating the colourful yet delicate beauty of his work.

Jakuchu is particularly loved for his vivid depictions of animals, especially birds, of which there are several excellent examples, but a similar artistic love is bestowed by the artist on all aspects of nature, revealing a Buddhistic embrace of life in its various forms.

Perhaps the most impressive of the bird-themed works is “Cactus and Domestic Fowls” (1790), a work painted on six golden door panels from Saifuku-ji Temple. The contrast between the gold and the colours emphasizes the strutting forms of the birds, while the cactus makes a lazy appearance on the side as if to comment on the “prickly” nature of the proud fowls.

This work also reveals Jakuchu’s constant subtle humour that riffs off the eccentricity of the animal world as well as the constraints and possibilities of artistic media. You can find it in many other works, such as “Cockatoo” (1771) a kappazuri print, namely printed in black and then colour stencilled. Jakuchu seems to have chosen the upside-down pose of the little bird to refer to the various inversions of the printing process.

Cactus and Domestic Fowls, 1790
A completely different technique also reveals artistic humour – “Phoenix” (undated), a hanging ink scroll painting, relatively quickly painted, shows playful brushstrokes around the neck of the bird that loosen and enliven what would otherwise have been a too precise and straight composition, while also throwing in a hint of gentle mockery at the austere bird.

These hints and touches constantly shine through Jakuchu’s work and suggest that he may even have been subtly commenting on the vanity and pomposity of the society around him.

But if Jakuchu is such an accomplished artist, why is there now a boom, implying, of course, that appreciation of his art went through a lengthy period of neglect?

His name appears second only to Maruyama Okyo in the “Heian Jinbutsushi,” a kind of Who’s Who of Kyoto of the period, testifying to his high standing in his own time. But unlike Okyo, who founded a school and thus had many disciples and followers to keep his reputation high, Jakuchu was a more solitary creature. His painting studio was even named “Dokurakuka,” literally solitary pleasure nest. One imagines that he may have been something of an odd bird.

Japan Times
10th May, 2016

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