Animals in Japanese Art, Real and Imaginary

Animals in Japanese Art. Helmet in the shape of shachihoko, Edo period, 17th/18th century, iron, gold, silver, wood, paper, lacquer, silk, hemp and horse hair, height, helmet bowl 75/8 in, Tokyo National Museum.

This Washington DC exhibition is the first devoted to the subject of animals in Japanese art, real or imaginary, in the US with works spanning the 5th century to the present day. It’s a  large exhibition, with over 300 works of art, including sculpture, painting, lacquerwork, metalwork, textiles and woodblock prints. The objects are drawn from 66 Japanese and 20 American public and private collections.

180 Works on Loan from Japan

Many of the approximately 180 works on loan from Japan rarely, if ever, leave the country with seven of them being designated as Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government. Three of these registered artworks come from the Tokyo National Museum: Monju Bosatsu Seated on a Lion, with Standing Attendants (1273) by the Buddhist sculptor Koen; the carved wood sculpture Aged Monkey (1893) by Takamura Koun; and the footed bowl with applied crabs (19th century) by Miyagawa Kozan I.

Two other works are on loan from the Nara National Museum: a hanging scroll, Sword with Kurikara Dragon and Two Child Acolytes (13th century); and a Buddhist hanging scroll, Fugen Enmei (13th century). The wood sculpture, Fugen’s Elephant (13th century), is on loan from a private collection and the bronze Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities (14th century) has been lent by the Hosomi Museum, Kyoto.

The exhibition’s broad scope of animals in Japanese art aims to portray all types of creatures – from foxes and frogs, snakes and sparrows, to mythical animals such as dragons, phoenixes, and kappa river sprites. To explore the many roles animals have played in Japanese culture, the exhibition is divided into eight topics: Ancient Japan; The Japanese Zodiac; Religion: Buddhism, Zen, Shinto; Myth and Folklore; The World of the Samurai; The Study of Nature; The Natural World: Creatures on Land, in the Air, and in Rivers and Seas; and The World of Leisure.

Spiritual and Symbolic Significance

Since antiquity, animals have held spiritual and symbolic significance in Japanese culture, as evidenced by haniwa, ancient clay sculptures that were placed around grave sites, possibly to protect the dead in the afterlife. A 6th-century haniwa horse (on loan from LACMA) stands nearly four feet tall and is one of the largest known sculptures of this animal from the period. In Buddhism, Shinto, and Zen, artworks depicting animals were commonly given places of prominence in temples and shrines according to the creatures’ divine duties. The religious practice native to Japan, Shinto (the way of the kami, or spirits), with its worship of divine powers manifested in nature, is a logical starting point.

In Shinto, certain animals, such as deer and foxes, are regarded as messengers of the kami, while other animals, such as monkeys, can serve as their representations. The sacred horse, shinme, is the preferred mount of the kami identified with Shinto shrines and is sometimes depicted with its grooms costumed as priests, or attendants. In Shinto belief, one prays to a black sacred horse for rain and to a white one for the rain to end. Shinto deer were revered as messengers to, or even stand-ins for, the gods, as is illustrated in the 15th-century Kasuga Deer Mandala, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Importance of Deer in  Art

In particular reference to Japan, deer came to be regarded as sacred after a kami appeared riding one at Kasuga Taisha, a shrine near Nara dating to the 8th century. As Barbara R Ambros points out in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, in the Japanese Buddhist tradition, inspired by Indian and Chinese Buddhist precedent, specific animals served as the mounts of bodhisattvas (bosatsu) and other Buddhist divinities, such as the lion for the Monju Bosatsu and the white elephant for the Fugen Bosatsu.

Similarly, the divinity Dakiniten, also known as Inari Daimyojin, was usually depicted riding on a white fox, whereas the Kasuga deity was associated with deer. A pair of sacred deer, dating to the 13th century from Kozanji, are included in the exhibition – they are deemed Important Cultural Property and now preserved in the Kyoto National Museum.

The allegorical power of animals in Japanese art is not limited to the spiritual realm; they carry many meanings in secular works of art as well. Again, Barbara R Ambros, in the exhibition catalogue, explains that across Japanese religious history, animals have played important and complex roles, from powerful spiritual forces to inferior beings destined to experience constant suffering. Symbolic animals borrowed from Chinese cosmology ordered time and space: for instance, the four animals of the cardinal directions: the dragon (east); the phoenix (south); the tiger (west); and the turtle (north).

12 Animals of the Zodiac

There are also the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. Objects portraying the Japanese zodiac animals individually were commonly collected as symbols of an individual’s identity. Even rarer are works that depict all 12 animals of the zodiac together. The exhibition includes several examples of this: a set of 19th-century woodblock prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, on loan from the Arthur M Sackler Gallery, 19th-century kosode embroidered with the 12 zodiac animals, on loan from the National Museum of Japanese History, and a mid/late-19th-century netsuke by Kaigyokusai Masatsugu on loan from LACMA that portrays the 12 zodiac animals intertwined on one small piece of carved ivory.

Animals were also popularly described in myth and folklore in anthropomorphic terms, often as a means of disguising social critiques. One of the most well-known works in the exhibition is a scene from the handscroll Frolicking Animals (12th/13th century), on loan from the collection of Robin B Martin, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. Long attributed to the Buddhist monk Toba Sojo, the scene depicts monkeys, a rabbit, and a deer as protagonists in a thinly veiled satire of priests.

Humans also adopted the form of, or decorated themselves with, animals for their symbolic energy. Samurai commonly wore armour decorated with dragons or helmets in the shapes of rabbit ears, deer antlers, or the mythological shachihoko, which has the head of a tiger and body of a carp.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists developed an interest in the study of the natural world and thus in drawing individual animals directly from life and included animals in Japanese art. Inspiration for most images of animals had previously come from earlier examples in art. Whereas Ito Jakuchu painted with life-like detail every barb in every vane of a feather in Pair of Cranes and Morning Sun (circa 1755–1756), on loan from the Tekisuiken Memorial Foundation of Culture, while Utagawa Hiroshige carved every scale of a seabream in A Shoal of Fishes, his 19th-century woodblock print series on loan from the Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M Sackler Museum.

Auspicious Meanings of Animals in Japanese Art

Many artists depicted numerous animals within a single species in order to convey their auspicious meanings. An elaborate formal kimono like the 19th-century uchikake with phoenix and birds, on loan from the Kyoto National Museum, would have brought its wearer good luck, while giving someone a hanging scroll, such as One Hundred Rabbits (1784) by Maruyama Okyo (on loan from a private collection in Japan), conveyed a wish for prosperity and plenitude.

Contemporary artworks spread throughout the exhibition demonstrate the influence of traditional representations of animals on the work of living Japanese artists. The medieval Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities is installed alongside Kohei Nawa’s PixCell-Bambi 14 (2015), while Kusama Yayoi’s polka-dotted three-dimensional dogs are in conversation with haniwa animals, illustrating the similarities in their forms and expressions.

Many of the works exhibited in this survey of animals in Japanese art employ distinctly contemporary techniques to depict animals. On loan from the Broad Art Foundation is Murakami Takashi’s 82-foot-long vibrant painting In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (2014) that was created in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Murakami drew inspiration from a series of scrolls on the 500 arhats, Buddhists who achieved enlightenment, created by Kano Kazunobu over a 10-year period that included the 1855 Edo earthquake. For this painting, Murakami embellished the background, arhats, and animals such as the shachihoko with his signature flourish and vibrant palette. Another work by teamLab greets visitors before they descend into the exhibition and takes inspiration for its pixelated depiction of an abundance of mythical and real animals from the unusual grid technique Jakuchu used in a pair of folding screens depicting birds and animals – echoing art from across the centuries.

From 2 June to 18 August, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Catalogue available. The exhibition will travel to Los Angeles County Museum of Art.