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Beauty of the beasts: mythological and real

by Donald Richie

A BRUSH WITH ANIMALS: Japanese Paintings 1700-1950, by Robert Schaap, with essays by Willem van Gulik, Henk Herwig, Arendie Herwig-Kempers, Daniel McKee and Andrew Thompson. Leiden: Society of Japanese Arts (distributed by Hotei/Brill), 2007, 206 pp. with 275 color illustrations, $117 (cloth), $81 (paper)

This is the catalog of an exhibition at the Rotterdam Kunstahl organized to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the International Society of Japanese Arts, most members of which are museums or private collectors. The theme was Japanese animal imagery, some 250 years of it, with an emphasis on works by artists of the naturalistic Shijo School. Many of the works have never before been reproduced.

Emphasized also is the vast variety of animals that figure in Japanese iconography. Here are whole collections of birds, of fish, the ox of Zen fable, along with more fabulous beasts of the imagination.

These creatures originally came from various sources. Some, such as those traditional symbols for felicity and long life, the crane and the tortoise, came from the classic works of Chinese literature, as adopted by the Japanese ruling classes, eager to emulate things Chinese. Others (the Zen ox, for example) came from Buddhism, and others yet from native sources, or from Japanese adaptation.

One still much with us is the Jikkan Junishi, the sexagenary cycle of the ancient Chinese calendrical system. This is broken down into subcycles of 12 years, each of which is represented by an animal. Even now people think of the date of their own birth not only in terms of the imperial reign date and that of the Gregorian calendar, but also by what zodiacal beast they were born under — Year of the Rat, Year of the Dragon, etc.

The fabulous beasts are also of various origins. The dragon came from Asia, as did the tiger and lion, regarded by Japan (which had neither) as equally fabulous. Closer to home was the nightmare-eating nyu and the mischievous kappa, whose portraits are also included among all the other beings in this book.

A consequence of all of this Japanese animal lore is a vast iconography, fully illustrated in this well-organized, information-packed, beautifully printed-in-Hungary catalog.

The old masters are present in smaller format: Hiroshige’s sparrows and mandarin ducks, Hokusai’s eagle and a beautiful print of a bird called a crossbill, borrowed from the British Museum. But the exhibition itself is devoted to artists not so well known — if no less deserving.

Particularly attractive is a beautifully brushed “one hundred rats,” a small hand scroll over seven meters long. It was painted by a late 19th-century artist named Renjo whose dates are not even known. Then there is a magical sumi on silk “Badger Among the Grasses Under the Moon,” painted by Koyama Eitatsu, who died in 1945, and a splendidly lifelike lion licking its paw, by Takeuchi Seiko(1864-1942).

There is an ink and lacquer picture of a hen and a cock under a finely delineated medlar tree by Sakakibara Taizan (1890-1963), a beautifully minimalist mouse nibbling a wonderfully schematic daikon by Watanabe Seitai (1851-1918), and lots by perhaps the finest animal painter of them all, Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), including many of his splendid, sleek crows.

As a Japanese bestiary, this collection (drawn entirely from European sources, mostly Dutch, but German and Swedish as well) is representative and sensitively presented. As a record of the bond between man and beast, it is moving as well. And as a commemoration of the Japanese animal kingdom, it is splendid.

The exhibition will not be traveling (in fact, it was over last March) so, since it cannot come to you, you must go to it.

For more information check the publisher’s Web site at www.brill.nl