Since ancient times, the people of Japan have revered nature in many aspects of their lives, and Japanese art has reflected that connection through works that depict men and women in harmony with nature. From May 28 to December 2005, in galleries 241, 242, and 243, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present Kachō-ga: Flowers and Birds in Japanese Art. This exhibition of about 75 works from the collection examines the wealth of such motifs found in Japanese art from the eighth century to the modern age.
“Although Kachō-ga translates as ‘paintings of flowers and birds,’ the theme extends across all media,” says Kyoko Kinoshita, Project Assistant Curator of East Asian Art, who organized the exhibition. “As an archipelago nation with distinct geographical features, the Japanese people are sensitive to the changing aspects of nature in the four seasons. Attention to and enjoyment of the seasons are reflected in literature and in many aspects of daily life, such as food, clothing, and religion. Japanese artists have always been inspired by nature and have often depicted it in a playful spirit.”
In the Heian Period (late 8th to late 12th centuries), the flower-and-bird motif became a visual expression of poetic appreciation. By the Muromachi Period (14th to late 16th century), Zen monk painters under the strong influence of Chinese ink paintings established the theme as an important subject of Japanese art. During that time, Japanese artists absorbed the skills of Chinese ink painting to which they brought a high degree of proficiency. Their work became more than decorative pieces, constituting explorations and pictorial representations of what was understood of nature at the time.
The theme was further developed in the Edo period (17th to late 19th century), a time of great social and economic change in Japan, during which the feudal system was established and then disrupted by Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853. As the middle class gained wealth, the purchase of works of art became a symbol of prosperity. In turn, artists rushed to meet popular tastes. Traditional painting styles flourished and themes of nature – especially birds and flowers – enjoyed immense popularity. Today, these themes continue to inspire artists and to evoke deep human correspondences.
Works of art in the exhibition range in date and style from the Triptych of Jurōjin, White Herons and Reeds, and White Heron and Lotus by Kano Naonobu (1605-1655, Edo period) to a Hexagonal Covered Box with Design of Chickadee and Pomegranates made by Mori Keiko (b. 1939) in 2001. Also on view will be 18 prime examples of Kachō-ga themes from the Museum’s holdings of Japanese arms, including katana (swords), tsuba (sword guards), and a sword rack.