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Photographs capture the moment — a second in time frozen on film. And yet, unless you’re a Magnum hotshot, this most “real” of media can produce images that seem lifeless, flat and unmoving. As all visual artists know, portraying three-dimensional figures in a two-dimensional medium is extremely difficult.

All the more extraordinary, then, are the creations of Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795).

As the pioneer of shasei-ga (sketching), Maruyama was perhaps the first Japanese artist to depict the realistic movement of birds and animals. Proof of his achievement is now on show at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida Ward, where “Maruyama Okyo: Shasei-ga — Challenging a New Frontier” gathers 120 of his masterpieces

Chief among these is “Peacocks and Peonies,” perhaps the most magnificent example of how Maruyama brings his objects to life. The way the soft necks of the peacocks curve is so real that you can imagine these birds turning around or lifting their heads to look at you. And each of their delicate, iridescent feathers is carefully drawn, seeming to rustle in sync with the peacock’s movements.

Maruyama’s mastery of form and movement, acquired by close observation of living subjects, gave him the ability to breathe life into creatures that exist only in the imagination. “Dragons and Clouds,” on a six-fold screen, has as its centerpiece a powerful dragon that twists and turns through thick white clouds. Adding to the illusion, Maruyama has used the folds of the screens to mimic the sinuous flexing of the monster — the head of the dragon bursts through the clouds on one panel while the body is still concealed on the panel to the right. The artist has taken a painting and turned it into an almost 3D artwork.

Tigers were also “unreal” animals in the Japan of Maruyama’s day — there were no live animals in captivity at the time. To get the moves of the tiger just right, Maruyama observed cats, and for the creature’s fur, he studied a tiger-skin rug.

His study of the rug paid off, because the black-and-yellow big cats prowling across the screens of “Tigers” have soft, fine fur so realistic that you feel like running your fingers through it. Their general appearance, though, is another matter. Maruyama evidently had trouble with the ears — he drew them as small as he could, or sometimes not at all. And because cats were the model, the way these tigers sit or pad around with their long tails sailing upward is more pampered pussycat than fearless predator. Still, you can’t say he didn’t try.

Born into a poor farming family, Maruyama’s talent was discovered when he worked for a toy maker in his early teens. He had been producing drawings for nozoki karakuri, a kind of toy in which pictures are viewed through a peephole to give the scene the illusion of depth and perspective.

His employer recognized Maruyama’s talent and sent him to receive training in the Kano style of painting. The young artist then met the abbot of Enman-in Temple, and for nearly 10 years he was retained by the temple as a resident artist. During that period, Maruyama first established his shasei techniques.

But the lifelike depiction of animals was just the beginning of Maruyama’s innovation.

One section of this exhibition is titled “The Space Where the False and the Real Coexist,” and it invites you to step into the artist’s imagined world. Take “Great Waterfall,” a 3.6-meter-high hanging scroll painting that was displayed in its original home of Enman-in — part of it was draped on the floor. You are placed close to the action — drawn into the scene as water crashes down with force, the water hitting the ragged rocks and shattering into droplets so fine you can almost sense the spray.

In the final section of the show are three replica rooms from Kamei-san Daijoji Temple in Kasumi, Hyogo Prefecture. Maruyama painted a number of sliding doors here, and they are displayed exactly as they are in the temple. One set of doors, “Peacocks and Pines,” is particularly remarkable: The pine trees are drawn so that the branches are always continuous from one panel to the next, whether one door is slid open or closed.

Sadly, this will likely be the last time that we are able to view these sliding doors. After this exhibition finishes, the doors will be put into storage at Daijoji Temple and replaced with copies. This may be your last chance to step into Maruyama’s fascinating world of reality and imagination.

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