In 2000, the Kyoto National Museum commemorated the death of Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) with an exhibition that generated a surge of interest in the artist. The boom has possibly reached its zenith this year, which marks the 300th anniversary of his birth.
While the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art’s current show hopes to reclaim Jakuchu as one of its own with the title “Jakuchu no Kyoto, Kyoto no Jakuchu” (“Jakuchu’s Kyoto, Kyoto’s Jakuchu”), it may be too late given the artist’s increasing prominence. Contemporary familiarity, however, is frequently accompanied by the erosion of historical culture and its practices.
Jakuchu’s numerous paintings of pine trees, cranes and immortal tortoises symbolize longevity, New Year’s celebrations and weddings (some cranes were thought to pair for life). Such imagery was conventionally displayed privately, and it assured domestic converse with seasonal cycles and yearly events. It was both intimate and extremely popular.
Carp, for example, Chinese legend told, ascended the Longmen Falls after swimming the Yellow River, turning into auspicious dragons. Used to celebrate Boy’s Day (May 5), they were also displayed by members of the merchant class after the birth of a boy, as Jakuchu was himself, eldest son and heir to a Kyoto greengrocer. His carp pictures could also be repetitive stock compositions individuated by an inscription or brush flourish. Multiples of perennially in-demand subjects were an economic engine of painting and a way for Jakuchu to make a living.
Likewise his “Fushimi Doll” pictures were a strong seller. Made in the southern Fushimi district of Kyoto, the brightly colored figurines adopted the iconography of the Buddhist exemplar Hotei with their round bellies protruding from parted kimono robes. The Kyoto household tradition was to purchase a doll a year for seven years to ward off sickness and disaster. It was a serious, and serial, subject.
“Cockatoo on Pine Tree” was an uncommon sight and a less familiar subject in Jakuchu’s Kyoto as the bird was imported to Japan from exotic southern islands. Mentioned in some Chinese poetry, pity was expressed for the usually solitary bird that was frequently a sideshow display and used in some Shinto rituals.
The catalog description has almost nothing to say about the cryptically titled scroll pairing, “Figures.” The left one, however, portrays two wood-collecting women called Ohara-me; one carries her kindling on her head while the other has set hers down. On that a street performer balances on one leg and spins, from a pole supported from his mouth, a plate, which is perhaps filled with water. On the right, a figure stands with his back to us, again holding a pole. Ostensibly his profession is bird catcher, practiced by piecing together segments of bamboo into a long pole, applying sticky bird line to its tip and sidling up to catch a bird unawares. The theme, plausibly, is good fortune.
“Jakuchu Revealed: 300th Anniversary of Ito Jakuchu’s Birth” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs until Dec. 4 (9 a.m.-5 p.m., admittance till 4:30 p.m.). Admission is ¥1,200. For more details, visit www2.city.kyoto.lg.jp/bunshi/kmma/en.