Our Journey to the Colorful Realm

Our Journey to the Colorful Realm

At least we’re not the only art crazies. We met a couple who came from Phoenix, and a woman from Huntsville, Alabama, to see this exhibit. It was worth the airfare.

On April 10, Gary happened to be watching the PBS evening news, which often features arts coverage. We were enthralled by the piece on an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, of works by an 18th Century Japanese artist, Ito Jakuchu The exhibit, titled “Colorful Realm,” depicted various flowers, birds, fish, insects and other flora and fauna on 30 silk scrolls. The works, which belong to the Japanese Imperial Household, are rarely exhibited and have never before been shown in the United States. As the piece ended the announcer said the four-week show closed April 29.

The first scroll, with simple composition and open space.

Gary and I share a love of art. When we met, we discovered we had each attended the exhibit of the Barnes collection at the Kimbell in Fort Worth around the same time. Whenever we travel we try to visit galleries, and I personally rank cities by the quality of their art museums. Our love for Japanese art began on one of our “art crazy” trips, this one to Los Angeles in 1999 to see a touring Van Gogh exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art.  While there we visited LACMA’s fine Japanese pavilion, and were entranced. Several years later, the Blanton Museum here in Austin had a show of Hiroshige’s “One Hundred Views of Edo,” which took my breath away. I stood in front of the pieces utterly tranfixed.  I bought a little book of postcards of a selection of the works (which I plan to see again next time we’re in New York, as the Brooklyn Art Museum has a set) and matted and framed nine of my favorites, which now hangs in our bedroom.

I went to choir practice that evening, and when I got home Gary said, “I’ve found cheap fares to BWI. Do you want to go to that exhibit?” Of course I did. So, the Thursday before the last weekend of the show found us catching a plane at 5:30 a.m. (hence the low fares).

It was worth every cent. The hall was filled with other art crazies, but everyone was polite and moved along and out of each other’s way. At one point there was a “wagon train” of wheelchairs, but with patience I got to see everything. After a thorough viewing, we had lunch in the National Gallery’s concourse café. I was living in the D.C. area when the East Building opened, and as an art major spent many hours there, so this was also a nostalgia trip for me.

After lunch we attended a standing-room only lecture on the exhibit, which provided in-depth information about the artist, the milieu in which he lived, his techniques and the history of the works since he donated them to a Buddhist monastery. It was worth standing through because it deepened our appreciation even more, and taught us another way to look at the work: the curator told us that the works were meant to be viewed in pairs, which were arranged opposite each other in the hall. Afterwards we went back and looked at them again, walking down the middle of the hall.

Center crane eyes the rooster across the way.

Never seen in nature: this many roosters together with one hen would have killed each other by now.

The lecturer also mentioned a current exhibit at the Sackler Museum of the works of the more famous Japanese artist Hokusai, whose image of a wave is probably the best-known piece of Japanese art in the world.

We took in a show of Picasso drawings and another of photos called “I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010.”

After a quick swing through the Hirshhorn  sculpture garden and museum, we hopped down the Mall to the Sackler. All those years living in or near Washington I had never visited this museum, and what a revelation! The Hokusai exhibit was his “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” the showcase of which is that wave, “Under the Wave off Kanagawa.” Although the wave dominates the image, Mount Fuji is in the background. Another exhibit, “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples,”  would have been more interesting if I had not been dead on my feet by this time.

Henry Moore at the Hirshhorn

It was a clear, cool and windy spring day in Washington. The azaleas and rhododendrons were blooming and we enjoyed being out on the Mall. We made a quick stop in the Smithsonian Castle, another treasure I had never visited. One of my favorite Smithsonian Museums, the Arts and Industries building, was closed for renovation.

Smithsonian Castle

Exhausted and hungry, we decided to head back to the National, which stayed open late for the last few days of the Colorful Realm, hoping the cafés would be open. Only the Garden Café was open and the menu was limited, but we were happy to sit down, have some sangria and a meal. We indulged ourselves in one more viewing of the exhibit, which was much less crowded than it had been all day.

East view of the Capitol with roses.

The sun was going down and we really wanted to see the World War II Memorial and the new Martin Luther King Memorial, but we didn’t have enough energy left, and we trudged back to Union Station to catch the train to BWI, where the hotel shuttle would pick us up.

If you have never visited Washington, I urge you to do so. The Mall holds the riches of our nation’s cultural legacy. The museums are free–paid for by those taxes so many people complain about. If you want to experience the best possible use for your (and my) money, visit any of the Smithsonian museums or the wonderful art galleries that abound in this fascinating city. Take your family.

Next: Surprising Baltimore.

More Jakuchu images: Gary’s favorite is “Drakes in Snow,”  but I couldn’t decide on a favorite. Among the many interesting things about this art is the lack of perspective. It’s all in the front, so you can’t really “step into”  the works. Later artists like Hokusai, who lived after Japan opened to the West, learned about and used perspective. In turn, Japanese art heavily influenced the Impressionists, who borrowed the flat picture plane and tight composition.

Fish and lotus

Drakes in Snow

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