The Kyoto National Museum is celebrating 2017 with a small-scale thematic exhibition concerning the Chinese zodiac Year of the Rooster and the good fortune it is believed to bring. Usually symbolizing the break of day chasing away darkness and evil, the rooster in at least one work, however, is rather more indicative of protracted conflict and perhaps unfortunate endings.
The creatures in “Poetry Contest of the Twelve Zodiac Animals” (15th century) fall into two camps: the auspicious zodiac ones, and the rest. The lowly tanuki (raccoon-dog) covets the respect bestowed upon the poetry-judging deer that he accompanies to an event. But he is mocked and chased away by the zodiac animals. He battles for revenge but loses and the rooster performs a victory dance.
Watching from afar, the hawk sees that the zodiac animals’ guard is down as they sleep and he rallies companions for a counter attack. However, they eventually lose, and the tanuki abandons his wife and crying children to seek enlightenment as a Buddhist monk.
The wider focus of the exhibition is of the avian variety found in the East Asian “bird and flower” genre. Among the prize works is “Bird on Sasanqua Branch” (1473), a Chinese Northern Song dynasty theme of a camellia dusted with snow signaling the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The dated inscription by the 14th-century Zen monk, Zuikei Shuho, makes it the oldest surviving color painting of birds and flowers in Japan. Another is Sesshu Toyo’s desolate winter scene, “Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons” (15th century). It is considered the only authentic bird and flower screen by the master.
Other works include an 8th-century mask used for the now mostly forgotten theatrical gigaku (a style of traditional dance) performances that were tied to Buddhist rites. Representing Karura, the sacred Indian bird deity who devoured snakes, this mask was used in the eye-opening ceremony of the large Buddha of Todaiji Temple in Kyoto in 752.
The New Year’s show is concurrent with the museum’s Jakuchu Ito exhibition celebrating the anniversary of the 18th-century painter’s birth, and it demonstrates how Jakuchu’s bird subjects were shared by his contemporaries’ work, such as in Kano Eiryo’s “Chickens and White Plum Blossoms” (18th century). Such works had been influenced by the earlier Shen Nanpin-style of the Chinese merchant and painter who resided briefly in Japan and whose style stimulated realism and bird paintings for Jakuchu’s time and thereafter.
Osaka-based Nagayama Koin’s “Chickens” (18th-19th century) is an example of subsequent stylistic eclecticism. He interspersed Jakuchu-style birds in black ink between colorful flowering plants, earning himself the sobriquet “nue” — a terrifying mythical flying creature composed of various animals’ body parts. In painting, the reference meant the unseemly amalgamation of divergent styles.
“Early Birds: Celebrating the Year of the Rooster” at the Kyoto National Museum runs until Jan. 15; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mon. (except Jan. 9) and Jan. 10. ¥520. www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/index.html
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