What lies behind the eccentric?

by Matthew Larking

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote that what is “familiarly known” is not “properly known,” just for the reason that it is familiar. The familiar historical image of the Edo Period Eccentric painters, one of whom was Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), is no exception. They are remembered for their highly individual styles in unsurpassed technical abilities; their fanatic devotion to painting; and for taking to virtuosic practices, such as dipping their fingers in ink and scratching out paintings or imbibing copious amounts of alcohol while dabbling with the brush.

This characterization is in part true, but prone to hyperbole. There also is, as the Miho Museum’s “Jakuchu Wonderland” exhibition of recently discovered historical documents shows, a more somber reflection of such artists and their sphere of activities.

In 1999, economic historian Hideki Usami published an article titled “Regarding the Official Authorization of the Kyoto Nishiki Takakura Vegetable Market,” which appeared to contradict the popular image of a solitary Jakuchu, aloof from obligations to society and family and devoted only to fleeing reality through painting and Buddhism.

Jakuchu’s parents owned a grocery store in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, and after his father’s death, he inherited the business at age 23. The tale told until the publication of Usami’s piece was that he was inept in commerce and at around age 40, he relinquished control to his younger brother in 1775.

According to Usami, however, between 1771-74, Jakuchu more or less gave up painting to act as the Nishiki district representative in a dispute with rival Gojo district wholesalers that led to the cancellation of the district’s license by the shogunal administrator and the closure of the Nishiki market. Jakuchu, it seems, was integral in all stages of the protracted negotiations to reopen the market, and only resigned his district representative status in order to avoid a potential backlash from the people he was representing.

S till, the worldly merchant Jakuchu remains in most eyes as an otherworldly painter. His “Spirits of Used Items” (18th century) features tsukumogami, spirits that inhabit long-used items and take their genesis from the “Night Parade of One Hundred Demons” folk tale of the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). Here, Jakuchu has painted a columnar procession of anthropomorphic household vessels and containers, the most prominent being a little demon with long whiskers and a kettle-shaped head who sits in seiza position before a tea whisk. Other works continue the phantasmal theme, such as his “Chinese Baize” (18th century), a depiction of a mythical horned creature that can ward off calamity. But Jakuchu had a desire to portray all things, and this is illustrated in the show’s wide spectrum of works that include a focus on nature alongside his themes of the supernatural.

Jakuchu’s most comprehensive group of works featuring nature is his “Colorful Realm of Living Beings,” a series of 30 plant and animal life paintings that relate to the esoteric Buddhist tenet that all living beings, sentient or otherwise, can achieve Buddhahood. These pictures were completed by Jakuchu over 10 years and given as a gift to the Kyoto temple Shokokuji, and were recently shown as part of the Tokyo National Museum’s “Treasures of the Imperial Collections” exhibition.

“Birds Frolicking in the Snow” (18th century), from the same period, showcases Jakuchu’s unique style of traditional bird-and-flower painting. While it seems that Jakuchu must have sketched the mandarin ducks from life, there are spatial ambiguities, such as the rather flat treatment of the blossoming plum tree on which bulky drifts of snow pile, that dispel any sense of strict realism.

Similar treatment is given to the representation of the show’s central exhibit, the recently discovered “Elephant and Whale Screens” (1795). Here the two largest creatures of land and sea salute each other in an act of mutual respect — the elephant with a raised trunk and the whale with a spout of water.

Jakuchu could have had access to a real elephant, as one arrived from Vietnam and was shown to the emperor in Kyoto in 1729, and it would have been possible for him to observe whales. Rather than slaving over a realistic image, however, Jakuchu chose to depict the whale as a simple rounded black mass and the elephant as an amorphous white body.

This seems less the work of a manic eccentric than the careful stylistic paring away of the inessential. In which case, it appears this visual evidence for intuiting a more restrained artistic temperament lends visual support to Usami’s textual one.

“Jakuchu Wonderland” at the Miho Museum, Shigaraki, Shiga Prefecture; runs till Dec. 13; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m; admission ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.miho.or.jp