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For the first time in 120 years, the 30 scroll paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) known as “The Colorful Realm of Living Beings” are being shown together with the “Sakyamuni Triad” — three hanging scroll paintings of a central Buddha and two attendant bodhisattvas — at the Shokokuji Temple in Kyoto.

Starting in his 40s, the two sets took Jakuchu some 10 years to complete. He then gave all 33 paintings to the Shokokuji Temple as a offering for the salvation of himself and his family members. The 30 scrolls of “The Colorful Realm of Living Beings” were presented to the Imperial Family in 1889, and are now usually housed in the Sannomaru Shozokan Museum in the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, while the “Triad” paintings are kept at Shokokuji. The current exhibition is an extraordinary reunion organized to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the death of the temple’s founder, the third Ashikaga Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and is probably the last opportunity to see the paintings all together due to logisitic complications.

The Buddhist triptych shows the Buddha Sakyamuni flanked on one side by Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of keen awareness and wisdom, seated on a lion, and Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of universal virtue, seated on an elephant, all in rich colors and gold. They look very different from most Japanese images of Buddhist subjects, and were almost certainly inspired by Korean paintings extant at the time in one of the temples of Kyoto or Nara. One such Korean painting dating from the Koryo Period (918-1392) that has surfaced in recent years was most likely the prototype for Jakuchu’s central picture of Sakyamuni Buddha. It is now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

At Shokokuji, the triptych is displayed centrally with the 30 paintings of “The Colorful Realm” hanging along each side wall. These illustrate the promise that Sakyamuni (the historic Buddha) made at his enlightenment, that all living creatures would in time become Buddhas. They show birds, insects, freshwater and marine creatures together with gorgeous flowers and plants, painted in rich colors on silk.

Jakuchu was unique among artists of the Edo Period (1603-1867), and has attracted popular attention since the exhibition of Etsuko and Joe Price’s collection at the Tokyo National Museum last summer. His fame is well-deserved, not only for his accurate portrayal of natural subjects — which he said any painter could accomplish with practice — but for that extra something that separates artistic winners from the also-rans. In Jakuchu’s paintings, this is manifested in vibrant compositions and unusual but believable subjects: a rooster with his head bowed between his legs or a goose flying head-down, disturbing the snow off reeds with the flap off its wings. No matter how bizarre the subject, Jakuchu always observes nature’s laws, and it is amazing to see, for instance, how he suggests the weight of a rooster’s body balancing perfectly on one leg while the other is raised in step.

I was fortunate in accompanying Etsuko and Joe Price to see this show while in Kyoto last week, and we were privileged to have a special viewing after visiting hours. Joe Price is well familiar with all of the paintings, and on entering the room with the “Sakyamuni Triad” and the paintings of “The Colorful Realm of Living Beings,” he stood in the center without once approaching the scrolls for a closer look. Seeing the paintings together as a conceptual entity, he compared the display to the Sistine Chapel in Rome; in total it is a profound religious statement underscoring the idea that all life will be reborn higher and higher up the evolutionary ladder toward enlightenment as a Buddha.

Other well-known paintings by Jakuchu can be seen in another gallery of the temple’s museum. Highlights include the famous wall panels and fusuma sliding doors decorated with grape-vines from the Rokuoni Temple, a sub-temple of Shokokuji that is famous for its Golden Pavilion. Subtle ink tones capture perfectly the withering leaves, and brush strokes depict twirling tendrils in almost calligraphic flourishes. Each grape is surrounded by a narrow, white — i.e. unpainted-paper — circle suggesting the dusty bloom of the ripe fruit. No other painter — even among those more famous — could combine negative space with different intensities of ink, from the faintest gray to the densest black, to such artistic effect. These paintings are endlessly fascinating and a joy to look at.

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