Jakuchu Ito (1716 – 1800 ) completed thirty stunning and accomplished paintings on silk that make up the collection the ‘Colorful Realm of Living Beings’. This virtuoso achievement was a lifetime passion, one that was as much dedicated to the spiritual aspect of such a vocation as it was to the artistic. This is the embodiment of how art works when it works best for me. I have been reading Aldous Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception’ which illuminates the experience of attempting to imitate the visionaries view of human life, or an artist’s view of how he perceives the world. It explains how the brain can trick itself into similar states by ingesting mescalin, an hallucinogenic synthesized drug comparable to peyote. After having read a more modern volume by three scientists, ‘The General Theory of Love’, I can begin to surmise how the brain chemistry affects how an artist paints to express his interiority. I think artists and poets have tried to bridge the gap between the unseen , unconscious joy of what Huxley termed ‘Mind at large’ and the experience of everyday reality. When a work of art moves us, I think it triggers a response that is waking up our subconscious desire for a ‘ paradise’. Equally it may trigger deep pain responses, which reflect a troubled ,possibly buried psyche. I am fascinated by how our brains work, and how newly discovered neurology can throw light on that. At the same time I am nervous of ‘explaining’ the brain. What we know most is how little we know. The more we discover, the more there is to know. We cannot synthesise passion and love. Art reflects that.
This Japanese artist dedicated his life to painting full time after having retired from a successful family business at around forty years of age. He honed his craftsmanship and became capable of extraordinarily sophisticated techniques for painting on silk. These are large works, each one on average, about four and a half feet tall by two and a half feet wide. As a relatively young man in his thirties, Ito became under the influence of a respected intellect, a monk and poet called Daiten, later to become the abbot of Shōkokuji Monastery. Consequently the paintings he was working on transformed into a project of deeper significance, what had began as examples of bird-and-flower painting in the convention of the major East Asian genre began to reflect more experimental subject matter, and the whole collection was tied to an important Buddhist ceremony called the Kannon repentance ritual. After the thirty paintings were completed, Ito complemented them with a triptych featuring Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha, flanked by two Bodhisattvas, Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra, for a total of 33. This had a significance to Buddhist instruction.
If you were lucky enough you could have seen these beauties this year as they were displayed in an exhibition at Washington celebrating the centennial celebration of the Cherry Blossom Festival.(Visit http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/Jakuchūuinfo.shtm for more details.)
It isn’t often anyone has seen these exhibited all together, and certainly it is the first time they have been shown together outside Japan. It must have been a remarkable act of co-operation between the curators, particularly as Japan was dealing with a catastrophic devastation after the tsunami in March 2011. A triumph of hope is a fitting tribute to an artist of spiritual and artistic integrity. All images are from the harvard magazine, courtesy of the Museum of the Imperial Collections, The Imperial Household Agency, Japan.