From Japan, creatures great and small

Pair of Sacred Monkeys, late Heian period (794–1185), 12th century, camphor (kusunoki) wood with traces of pigment, a) 16 1/2 x 9 x 9 1/2 in.; b) 16 1/2 x 9 x 11 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., Margaret and David Barry, the Louis Y. Kado Trust, Mrs. Charlene S. Kornblum and Dr. S. Sanford Kornblum, Murray Smith, and Grace Tsao, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Zoological gardens

“Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art” at LACMA

Robert T. Singer was probably put on Earth to shepherd this exhibition into existence. He’s been (good-naturedly, I’m sure) referred to as a zookeeper rather than a curator because of all the Japanese art depicting animals that he’s collected for LACMA over the past 30 years: He joined the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1988 and, as the department head of Japanese art, has spearheaded some remarkable shows during his tenure. The 2001 preview for the Max Palevsky Collection of Japanese Woodblock Prints was just one of those memorable moments for this writer.

Now, along with Kawai Masatomo, director of the Chiba City Museum of Art in Japan, Singer has assemble an exhibition of nearly 200 works in all media (sculpture, painting, lacquer ware, ceramics, metalwork, cloisonné, and woodblock prints) that spans the fifth through the twenty-first century. During the summer, “Every Little Thing” was on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Additionally, LACMA partnered with the Japan Foundation and the Tokyo National Museum.

“Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art,” installation view

In other words, we are introduced to art that takes us from before the Kofun period “Haniwa Dog” of the sixth century to Kusama Yayoi’s “Megu-chan” (2014), both of them stylish canine sculptures.

“In European art,” Kawai Masatomo writes in the accompanying catalog, “the human form represents the highest aesthetics, and in Chinese art that place is held by vast landscapes representing nature on a grand scale. Japanese art, by contrast, presents the living flora and fauna within nature, usually in relation to humans. Ideally, the relationship between humans, animals, and plants is a mutually beneficial symbiosis. I suggest that this is a key component for understanding Japanese art.”

Nin’ami Dōhachi, Okimono in the form of a Tanuki (badger), late Edo period (1615–1868), 19th century, glazed ceramic, 9 5/16 × 11 13/16 × 10 5/8 in., Tokyo National Museum, photo credit: Tokyo National Museum

And perhaps all other aspects of Japanese life as well. “The works presented are closely tied to the lifestyle, mythology, and religious views of Japan,” as pointed out by Andō Hiroyasu, president of the Japan Foundation in Tokyo.

Would it be possible to mount such a show focusing on animals in North American art? That’s not so easy to imagine, is it? What about South American or African art? It would be a differently focused exhibition in every instance.

So why are animals in Japan, and thus in Japanese art, so revered? Largely it’s due to the nation’s Shinto and Buddhist heritage. Other religions do not seem to place much emphasis (other than paying them lip service) on the sanctity of animals.

Or, as it’s put somewhat better by Barbara R. Ambros: “Within a Japanese Buddhist worldview, as in Buddhism in general, animals were considered living, sentient beings able to attain salvation. Therefore, animals were often included among the many beings mourning the passing of the Buddha Shaka in Japanese depictions of the Buddha’s death scene, a feature not common outside Japan.”

Related to this are the “life releases,” images depicting animals, including birds and fish, being set free. That’s due to the prevailing belief in karma, which is to say that all good deeds (and bad ones, too, for that matter) accrue for the next life. Generally, though, it’s the understanding that one should respect all sentient beings, no matter how small. Unfortunately, that includes fleas and silverfish. At any rate, it’s a decent attitude to have and to uphold, even for those who dismiss notions of an afterlife. Life releases, then, illustrate “how Japanese Buddhism shaped human interaction with animals,” these rituals offering humans the chance to show compassion to other species. Perhaps the more cynical among us may point a long finger at Japanese whalers and the harvesting of dolphins. That same finger, however, could now be pointing at just about every place, and people, on the planet.

“Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art,” installation view

Arranged by subject

“Every Living Thing” is subdivided into thematic sections: the Japanese zodiac; leisure and pastimes; myth and folklore; religion, the natural world; the world of the samurai; and foreign and exotic animals.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Shirafuji Genta Watching Kappa Wrestle, 1865, 2nd month, color woodblock print, image: 13 3/4 × 9 in.; sheet: 14 13/16 × 10 1/8 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Herbert R. Cole Collection, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

To begin with the latter (foreign and exotic animals), during the 18th and early 19th centuries the Dutch, who were allowed to anchor off of Nagasaki, on the island of Dejima, brought animals as gifts. Federico Marcon has a fascinating essay about this in the catalog. For example: “The voyage of the two dromedaries (brought to Tokyo in 1824) from the Arabian Peninsula–from the marketplace in Mecca where they were first purchased, then conveyed by Arab and Dutch merchants via land and maritime trade routes, with stops at Goa and Batavia (Jakarta)–transported them through different ecosystems and cultures.” In short, out of one context and into another.

Auspicious animals (living good luck charms) abound not only as prints and sculptures, or as emblems, crests, and decorative motifs, but are incorporated into patterns on clothing (various types of kimonos, such as the furisode, haori, iwaigi, katabira, kosode, ubugi, and uchikake). Created in the 1980s and ‘90s, clothing designer Issey Miyake’s pleated garments look like attire to be worn in a more sophisticated, futuristic society. The point is, nearly everything on display is strikingly beautiful, often elegant and simply exquisite, from the tiny netsuke, small carved objects of wood or ivory, to the panoramic six-panel screens that may depict favorite horses, birds in trees or fish in streams.

I’m not sure which animal is depicted most often, but it must be one from among the 12 in the Japanese zodiac, which begins with the rat and then is followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat (or sheep), monkey, rooster (or chicken), dog, and wild boar. Sorry, cat lovers, you favorite feline’s not on the A-list. Utagawa Yoshitora’s “Picture of the Twelve Animals to Protect the Safety of the Home” (1888) combines all of the above creatures into one, a very strange composite beast indeed.

Octopus Form Box, late 19th century, hirado ware, porcelain with blue and brown glazes, 6 3/4 x 6 3/4 x 4 1/2 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Allan and Maxine Kurtzman, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Rather deep into the catalog we find these lines (by Kawai Masatomo) which could stand for much of what is on view: “The natural beauty of Japan’s mountains, rivers, and seashore and the abundant variety of animals, birds, fish, and insects that flourish there are reflected in centuries of Japanese art and literature. The country is also graced with a climate that yields sharp distinctions between the four seasons, and this seasonal shift is a theme that Japanese artists and writers have returned to in all eras, evidence of a profound connection to and respect for the natural world.”

“Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art,” installation view

There are visual exclamation points throughout the show, and the catalog concludes with a couple in particular that may easily convince us that the art of Japan has in no way lost steam or relevance: Murakami Takashi’s “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow” (2014) is a canvas that measures 82 feet in length, while teamLab’s “Chrysanthemum Tiger” (2017) is a continuously metamorphosing digital work, one of four such pieces on view, and part of its Fleeting Flower series. I would imagine, if you’re a young, aspiring artist looking for ideas and inspiration, you’d have to ask yourself, How can I equal or better the work here? As for the rest of us (intrigued onlookers), it’s a stunning experience if we take the time to embrace the multitude of art on display.

Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art largely draws upon LACMA’s permanent collection and is enhanced by works on loan. It’s on view through Dec. 8 in the Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles. For hours, admission prices and parking, go to ER


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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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