By submitting this form you agree to our privacy policy.

Birds and Beasts


Japanese artists have lavished loving attention of the animal kingdom for almost two millennia, as visitors to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., can now see for themselves.

Yamamoto Kozan, Rabbit-Shaped Censer

Yamamoto Kozan, Rabbit-Shaped Censer, Showa period, circa 1935, white bronze, 8.9 x 12.7 x 7.6 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge)

This summer, monkeys, frogs, cats, fish, octopuses, and flocks of birds invade the halls of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. No, it’s not an exchange program with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, it’s an art exhibition, and the animals aren’t in cages; they’re in frames, on pedestals, on ceramics and enameled boxes, woven into garments, and, as Gilbert and Sullivan put it, “on many a screen and fan.” “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” (through August 18) is a massive loan show featuring more than 300 works that portray wild and domestic creatures, spanning 17 centuries of Japanese visual culture.

Co-organized with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Japan Foundation, with special cooperation from the Tokyo National Museum, the exhibition features 180 works lent from Japan, many of which hardly ever leave Japan, or, indeed, never have until now. The largest single lender is the Tokyo National Museum, which lent 26 works. The National Gallery’s installation takes up 18,000 square feet in the East Building Concourse; from September 22 through December 8, a smaller version of the show, titled “Every Living Thing: Animal in Japanese Art” will be on view at LACMA. Both shows are curated by Robert T. Singer, curator and department head of Japanese art at LACMA, and Masatomo Kawai, director of the Chiba City Museum of Art, in consultation with a team of historians of Japanese Art. A voluminous, fully illustrated catalogue, published by Princeton University Press, accompanies the exhibition.

The dense presence of animals in Japanese art is due to several factors. The ancient Shinto religion saw the spirits or deities (kami) as being embedded in nature, and therefore as being intimate with the animal kingdom. For example, deer were considered to be messengers of kami, or were even used iconographically as representations of kami, as in a 15th-century Kasuga Deer Mandala on loan to the exhibition from the Art Institute of Chicago. In a woodblock print by Hiroshige, from a much later period (1857), fox spirits are depicted in the form of foxfires glowing against a wintry dark sky. Foxes, the most magical of all Japanese animals, were believed to be messengers of the Inari deity.

In early forms of Shinto ritual practice, clay sculptures of animals called haniwa were placed around gravesites as protection for the dead. And size apparently did matter when it came to protective power; a four-foot-tall haniwa horse dating from the 6th century, on loan from LACMA, is one of the largest known horse sculptures from the period. The semi-divine power of animals, real or mythological, could be channeled into human beings by the use of animal symbolism on items of apparel; samurai armor featured dragons, and samurai helmets were shaped to look like they had deer antlers, or somewhat surprisingly for modern Westerners, rabbit ears.


Animals also had, and still have, cosmological significance, as in many other cultures, in connection with the celestial zodiac (the Japanese zodiacal menagerie is based on the Chinese). A remarkable mid-19th-century netsuke, or small ivory sculpture, by Kaigyokusai Masatsugu depicts all 12 zodiacal animals intertwined with each other. A series of color woodblock prints by the great 19th-century ukiyo-e master Kuniyoshi also depicts all 12 animals, which is comparatively rare in Japanese art.

In secular Japanese art, animals were frequently used as stand-ins for people, to criticize the foibles of society without necessarily incurring the wrath of the authorities. That gambit did not always work, of course; the artist Ukita Ikkei painted a fox wedding in Tale of a Strange Marriage (circa 1858). This was a fairly thinly disguised satirical reference to the wedding of a Tokugawa shogun to an imperial princess, and it earned its creator a year in jail. Soon after his release, Ikkei died. The painting, however, lives on, and even if the circumstances surrounding it are obscured by time, the lively images of the anthropomorphic foxes have as much spirit as ever.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Japanese artists concentrated more than ever on portraying animals for their own sake, simply observing their distinctive beauty with wonder and deploying all the virtuosity of technique they had to do it justice. This new approach gave us many immortal works of naturalism—perhaps a stylized naturalism in many cases rather than the realist type current in the West at the time, but nonetheless an art that is devoted to animals for animals’ sake. A wonderful long horizontal scroll depicting birds sets their feathers, colorful or white, against a nearly plain cream background, the better to draw attention to the details of the creatures. Some animal portraits are psychologically as well as physically realistic. A very charming, nearly monochrome woodblock print from around 1890–1910 by Ogata Gekko shows a monkey swinging from a tree, reaching down with one long and slender arm to try and grab hold of the moon reflected in a pond. In three-dimensional works, the realism can be quite gripping and immediate, without abandoning decorative values; a perfect example is a glazed ceramic footed bowl with applied crabs by Miyagawa Kozan I (1881). On the other hand, a white bronze rabbit-shaped censer by Yamamoto Kozan (1935), subordinates naturalism to design, in this case, European-influenced Art Deco design. The ears curve back to form handles, and the smooth, rounded body conveys the sense of peace and serenity that only a sleeping animal can have.

The exhibition also includes contemporary artworks from Japan on animal themes, some of them inspired by classic artworks also on view. For example, the Kasuga Deer Mandala mentioned above got a response from the artist Nawa Kohei, in the form of titled PixCell Bambi #14 (2015), which is installed next to it. The haniwa animals inspired Yayoi Kusama to create her own version, multicolored dogs with, of course, multicolored polka dots. And fashion designer Issey Miyake, perhaps drawing on the tradition of animal-emblazoned furisode (robes) created garments that seem to turn the wearer into a fish, a monkey, or a bird.


By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2019

By submitting this form you agree to our privacy policy.