Japan’s interpretation of all creatures great and small

by Sachiko Tamashige

Special To The Japan Times

We still don’t know the true meaning or purpose behind the earliest examples of artworks depicting animals.

The beasts in prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, southwestern France, for example, have been speculated to be shamanistic symbols, simple artistic expressions and even a star chart. Whatever their purpose, however, those images of vigorous animals — depicted in flowing brushstrokes — do indicate that there was a strong relationship between people and animals. And that relationship persists to this day.

“Creatures’ Paradise,” at the Kyoto National Museum, focuses specifically on works from the museum’s collection that feature animals. It spans Japan’s prehistoric Jomon Period (8000 B.C.-300 B.C.) to the present day and includes depictions of elephants, camels, dogs, cats, rabbits, colorful birds, amphibians, insects and fishes. It also covers mythical creatures, such as dragons and phoenixes.

Laid out according to species and classified according to the “Bencao Gangmu,” a classical Chinese compendium of medicine, the show becomes something like a zoological festival. The creatures dominate folding screens and hanging scrolls, or they crawl, walk and wrap themselves around mirrors, porcelain vases, lacquerware works and more. There are 117 exhibits, including three National Treasures and 25 Important Cultural Properties, many of which are the work of eminent artists such as Sesshu Toyo, Maruyama Okyo and Ito Jakuchu.

“The exhibition was created in collaboration with the Kyoto City Zoo. This is the first time we have looked at our works not only from an art historical point of view but also from the perspective of zoology,” says Meiko Nagashima, a curator at the Kyoto National Museum. “We’ve found a new aspect to our collection.”

“In each period of history, different works were produced, each featuring various species and motifs,” explains Hidefusa Sakamoto, a veterinarian and the assistant manager of Kyoto City Zoo explained. “It is interesting to see how these works reflect the perception of animals that each group of people had.”

“Dog,” a hanging scroll painted by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), which is filled with images of playful puppies that overlap one another, is as lively as a scene from the Disney film “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Dogs were often depicted as fortuitous symbols of healthy childbirth and family prosperity, and Jakuchu’s detailed depiction of his dogs’ fur make them all the more vibrant and animated.

Domesticated cats are now popular as pets in Japan, but they once didn’t exist east of India. Such cats originated in the Middle East around 5,000 years ago and were imported much later. This zoological fact could explain why the cat, though now a common art motif, does not appear in the Chinese zodiac.

In Japan, it is commonly said that cats were used in the Nara Period (710-794) to protect Buddhist sutras from mice, and that they were domesticated as pets by the beginning of the Heian Period (794-1185). They were a luxury of the aristocracy and highly valued. To prevent them from running away, Murasaki Shikibu described them as being leashed like dogs in her classic work “The Tale of Genji,” written around the 11th century.

Cats were still, however, not foamiliar creatures to the ordinary Japanese. For example, though old paintings of Buddha’s death scene included animals gathering with men to mourn, it wasn’t until around the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) that cats, too, began to appear within the crowd. In “The Death of Buddha Sakyamuni,” a 13th-14th-century hanging scroll belonging to Chofukuji Temple in Kyoto, we see a tortoiseshell cat among the animals, but in the 14th-century “Death of Buddha Sakyamuni” from the Jorakuji Temple in Shiga Prefecture, there is still no cat.

Buddhism, which originated in India, also had an influence on the inclusion of other kinds of creatures in artworks, ones that people in China and Japan had never seen before. Such animals, including elephants, lions and tigers, were depicted in Indian Buddhist paintings and then were copied from copybooks of such paintings by Chinese and Japanese artists. Having never seen the real animals, the artists often produced some peculiar interpretations.

“Elephant-shaped Incense Burner,” a 17th-century Arita-ware work in the Kakiemon style, shows a rather odd-looking creature. The artisan, who had likely never seen a real elephant, fashioned what appears to be the body of a dog with the head and tail of an elephant.

Lions, like the mythical phoenixes and dragons, were also depicted from the imagination. In Buddhism, lions were guardians of the faith. In many cases, they were painted alongside peonies, as both the animal and flower were considered as kings of their kind.

“Lions can now only be seen in parts of Africa and India, but in ancient times, they also existed in South Europe, West Asia and the whole of India. Many art pieces with images of lions were produced in these regions,” says Sakamoto.

“We can see a mixture of a real lion and a shishi, or imaginary lion, in ‘Kinkafu,’ a luxurious printed piece of cotton from India,” he continues, “and this piece shows the international exchange of symbolism between India and China.”

An animal that has a closer relationship with humans is the horse, which was used not only for farming, but also for military and religious purposes. A Shinto votive plaque (ema) for example, illustrates horses being offered to a shrine, a significant event.

It was during the Kofun Period (c. 300-710) that Japanese people began to ride horses, and horse-shaped unglazed clay haniwa (funerary statues) have been found alongside haniwa of human figures. Political leaders, mostly in warrior clans, also saw a good horse as a symbol of social status. They would search extensively to find fast horses with good, aesthetically pleasing builds and healthy manes. It was their passion that fueled the production of many horse-related artworks.

There is an interesting corner of this exhibition in which three types of horse figures are juxtaposed: a clay haniwa (sixth century), a 13th-century wooden sculpture and a three-color glazed stoneware piece from eighth-century China. Though stout and stocky when compared with the thoroughbreds of today, these depictions of horses are likely typical of local breeds in Japan at that time.

There is a saying in Japan, that if you look carefully on a sunny but rainy day, you will see the wedding procession of a fox bride. “Fox Wedding Procession (Procession of Will-o’-the-wisp)”, a pair of 18th-19th century six-panel folding screens by Matsumura Goshun depicts such a procession. The foxes wear formal attire — kimono marked with a family crest — and as they walk, their feet appear to fade away like a mirage on a hot, summer day.

Foxes and raccoon dogs are common characters in old tales or allegories. It was believed that animals have emotions and behave just like human beings, and that sometimes, their ability exceeds human understanding. Such personification of animals is visible in many art forms, such as on scrolls and screens.

The projection of our emotions on to animals in such imaginative and humorous ways is just one indication of the significance of creatures in art that this exhibition explores. For those visitors who want to compare real animals to the artists’ depictions, there are panels that offer information related to Kyoto City Zoo. It could be worth going to there afterward to see just how different and fascinating artists’ interpretations can be.

“Creatures’ Paradise: Animals in Art” at the Kyoto National Museum Special Exhibition space runs till Aug. 28; admission ¥1,000; open 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp.