By Bobbie Leigh
Prepare to be dazzled. Birds in the Art of Japan, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will leave you spellbound. “Inspiration for the exhibition comes from traditional Japanese court poetry, haiku, and a Wallace Stevens 1923 poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” says John Carpenter, Curator of Japanese Art at the Met’s Department of Asian Art. Intermingled among the scrolls, screens, ink paintings, and bird books are contemporary textiles, ceramics, lacquerware, and bamboo art.
The mega-watt appeal of this new exhibition begins with Kohei Nawa’s glass PixCell-Deer, a contemporary sculpture recently acquired by the Museum at the entry point for the galleries. Although a semi-permanent addition to the Arts of Japan galleries and not specifically related to avian themes, it encapsulates all that follows—sublime sophistication emotional and intellectual complexities, and above all, a poetic sensibility.
The exhibition is organized roughly by galleries devoted to specific types of birds, from pheasants to peacocks, ravens to roosters, mynahs to magpies —almost all types of birds but only one with gossamer wings. Each gallery also features classic poetic inscriptions that the bird images might evoke. Intermingled among the scrolls, paintings, and watercolors are contemporary works that match the sensibilities of the medieval ones.
Cranes, waterbirds, birds of prey, among others are depicted with meticulous realism whether in flight, in battle, soaring in the heavens, enjoying domestic bliss, or simply showing off their spectacular plumage. The best example of this preening is a 1908 painting of a rare white peafowl on a gold leaf and gold-dusted silk screen. Rather than feathers, its diaphanous, delicate grand tail looks like extraordinary fluffy material. Another striking feature of this over-the-top image is that the bird’s eye looks straight at you.
In the next case, is a rare painting of Silkies by 18th center painter Mori Sosen.According to Carpenter, when Marco Polo first saw this rare bird on one of his 13th century journeys, he is reported to have said that this bird was a kind of fowl that had not feathers, but hair only like a cat’s fur. As in so many of these paintings, a lot is happening.
Birds’ eyes also dominate in a pair of 17th-century screens depicting a flock of more than 120 mynah birds (same as blackbirds) in flight or hopping along a shoreline. Their expressive eyes, no two are alike, also suggest human interaction. Mynah birds have a political significance in Japanese mythology: to defy corrupt political power. The motive behind this composition may have been a call to rebel, to remember the time when the ancient capital Kyoto where the emperor lived in his palace was under threat from the Tokugawa warlords.
Gorgeous textiles, both Buddhist and secular, with elegant bird motifs and a gallery devoted to ukiyo- prints are highlights of the art forms used to keep the viewer focused on the various ways, classic and contemporary, Japanese artists explored and depicted bird motifs. There are always surprises—tiny seeds woven into a wedding robe with embroidered birds or amid a classic flock of cranes on a screen painting, a soaring conceptual bamboo sculpture called Flight by Honma Hideaki (b. 1959).
In the last gallery Fukase Masahisa’s 1978 photograph, The Solitude of Ravens, is a powerful work with nearly the same impact as Edward Munch’s The Scream. It depicts a black as night raven silhouetted against a slightly less dark sky. Unlike earlier images of crows in previous galleries, here the raven is imbued with mystery, solitude, and a prevailing sadness. It’s a bit of a downer to end this riveting show, but it does yet again give the viewer an unprecedented sense of birds in the arts of Japan.
Birds in the Art of Japan is on view through July 28; www.metmuseum.org. Another rare exhibition, “Audobon’s Aviary: The Complete Flock,” will showcase Audubon’s Watercolors in a three-part series at the New York Historical Society. (Part I: March 8-May 19)