For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2003

Four Seasons in Japanese Art

July 5, 2003–January 4, 2004
Japanese Gallery

Yoshikawa Kôkei - Animals of the Zodiac

Yoshikawa Kôkei
Japanese, active 1920s
Animals of the Zodiac (detail)
detail from one of a pair of six-fold screens, ink and color on silk
Museum purchase made possible by the Margaret Watson Parker Art
Collection Fund, 2003/1.383.1

Since time immemorial, the inhabitants of Japan have celebrated the yearly cycle of the seasons in verse, in the pageantry of festivals, and in the visual arts. In this special installation of the Japanese Gallery, guest curator Natsu Oyobe brings together a delightful ensemble of paintings, prints, ceramics, and lacquerware of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries in which seasonal and calendrical motifs play a major role. The exhibition’s theme was inspired by a newly acquired pair of screens, Animals of the Zodiac. Painted in the early twentieth century by Yoshikawa Kôkei—a Kyoto artist about whom little else is known—Animals of the Zodiac treats an ancient theme with an utterly fresh perspective. Yoshikawa depicts each individual animal—whether rooster, tiger, mouse, or dragon—in a highly realistic manner. Creatures in his menagerie strut, stalk, scamper, or fly across the surface of two screens as though they were out together for a Sunday stroll. The minimal setting, established by a few plants, moves the procession through the four seasons.

Most of the works of art in this exhibition were produced between the mid-eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries for members of a thriving bourgeoisie in the cities of Kyoto or Edo (modern Tokyo). For this clientele, seasonal motifs evoked associations of leisurely pastimes or nostalgia—much as Impressionist paintings of the countryside appealed to Parisians of the late nineteenth century. Several paintings in the exhibition are explicit evocations of what we would today call tourist destinations, such as Nakabayashi Chikkei’s Plum Blossoms at Tsukigase, Kishi Renzan’s Spring Blossoms at Arashiyama, and Mount Fuji in Autumn, by Hanabusa Itchô. Others invoke imaginary landscapes of retreat, as in Matsubayashi Keigetsu’s pair of summer and winter landscapes.

Seasonal themes in the decorative arts often take the form of a single motif. An impressive set of lacquerware furnishings from a bridal trousseau is adorned with gilt floral scrolls—an ancient pattern that testifies to the conservative taste of provincial governors of the mid- to eighteenth century. An entirely different sensibility, representing the sophistication of the Kyoto tea ceremony market, is evident in the late nineteenth-century ceramics of Seifû Yohei III, such as his remarkable celadon water jar decorated with a pale white stalk of bamboo.

Natsu Oyobe is a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese art history in the Department of History of Art at the University of Michigan. This exhibition is but one of the many projects underway this year in which graduate students at the University have become deeply involved in research on the Museum’s collections.

Maribeth Graybill
Senior Curator of Asian Art

This exhibition is made possible by the Center for Japanese Studies at The University of Michigan.


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