Artful Traveler: Bird by Bird At the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Posted on 01 April 2013

Kimono with Birds in Flight, Japan, Shōwa period (1926–89), 1942 Dye-and pigment-patterned plain-weave silk crepe (chirimen)  Overall: 76 7/8 x 49 3/8 in. (195.3 x 125.4 cm) Gift of Harumi Takanashi and Akemi Ota, in memory of their mother, Yoshiko Hiroumi Shima, 2007 (2007.44.1)

Kimono with Birds in Flight, Japan, Shōwa period (1926–89), 1942
Dye-and pigment-patterned plain-weave silk crepe (chirimen)
Overall: 76 7/8 x 49 3/8 in. (195.3 x 125.4 cm)
Gift of Harumi Takanashi and Akemi Ota, in memory of their mother, Yoshiko
Hiroumi Shima, 2007 (2007.44.1)

 

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.

KoheiNawa, Japanese, born 1975PixCell-Deer#24Japan, Heisei period (1989–present), 2011Mixed media; taxidermied deerwith artificial crystal glassH. 80 11/16 in. (205 cm); W. 59 1/16 in. (150 cm); D. 78 3/4 in. (200 cm)Purchase, Acquisitions Fund and Peggy and Richard M. Danziger Gift, 2011

KoheiNawa, Japanese, born 1975
PixCell-Deer#24
Japan, Heisei period (1989–present), 2011
Mixed media; taxidermied deerwith artificial crystal glass
H. 80 11/16 in. (205 cm); W. 59 1/16 in. (150 cm); D. 78 3/4 in. (200 cm)
Purchase, Acquisitions Fund and Peggy and Richard M. Danziger Gift, 2011

 

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.

Mochizuki Gyokkei ( Japanese, 1874–1939) White Peafowl, Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), 1908 Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and gold-leaf dust on silk Image: 59 1/4 x 141 in. (150.5 x 358.1 cm) John C. Weber Collection

Mochizuki Gyokkei ( Japanese, 1874–1939)
White Peafowl, Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), 1908
Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and gold-leaf dust on silk
Image: 59 1/4 x 141 in. (150.5 x 358.1 cm)
John C. Weber Collection

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.

Mori Sosen (Japanese, 1747–1821) Silkies (Ukokkei) Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), before 1808 Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk Image: 33 3/4 x 51 in. (85.7 x 129.5 cm)  Fishbein-Bender Collection

Mori Sosen (Japanese, 1747–1821)
Silkies (Ukokkei)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), before 1808
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk Image: 33 3/4 x 51 in. (85.7 x 129.5 cm)
Fishbein-Bender Collection

 

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.

Mynah Birds (detail)Japan, Momoyama (1573–1615)–Edo (1615–1868) period, early 17th century Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold on paper Image (each): 61 x 142 1/8 in. (155 x 361 cm)  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation and Anonymous Gifts, 2013

Mynah Birds (detail)
Japan, Momoyama (1573–1615)–Edo (1615–1868) period, early 17th century
Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold on paper
Image (each): 61 x 142 1/8 in. (155 x 361 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Purchase, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation and Anonymous Gifts, 2013

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)

 

bobbie2-200x300  Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques

One Response to “Artful Traveler: Bird by Bird At the Metropolitan Museum of Art”

  1. Naomi Kulakow says:

    As Always, Bobbie Leigh captures the spirit of her topic in ways that make me want to drop everything and rush to see these breath-taking works she so eloquently describes.


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