Saturday, July 6, 2019

Law School Ladies Head to the National Gallery

Althea and Danita with David Smith's Voltri VII
Time has a way of getting away from us. Could it possibly have been ten years since our law school ladies group got together? Thankfully, Althea took the bull by the horns to organize a gathering. It literally took less than two hours for the gang of six -- three pairs of roommates -- to pick a date for our weekend get-together. The stars were clearly aligned.

The reunion got off to a rolling start, with Althea, my roommate Danita and I getting in 24 hours of activities ahead of our full contingent. Our first cultural activity was a stop at the National Gallery of Art to take in the blockbuster exhibit The Life of Animals in Japanese Art. It was particularly apt since Danita spent a year working in Japan post-graduation.

Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities (14th c.) 
To say the docent tour was a whirlwind would be an understatement. The exhibit contains over 300 objects created over the course of 17 centuries and is housed in 1800+ feet of gallery space. With only one hour of tour time, the docent was moving so fast that neither my brain nor my note taking could keep up.

I did, however, catch that this deer is one of the seven objects in the exhibit that has been designated an Important Cultural Property -- or a National Treasure -- by the Japanese Government.  According to legend, a Shinto figure was seen riding a deer many centuries ago. The animal is thus considered sacred as a conduit between ordinary people and religious deities.

Detail from Naganobu's "One Hundred Monkeys" (1784)
Althea pointed out one of her favorite works in the show -- Kano Naganobu's painted scroll entitled "One Hundred Monkeys." It is seriously charming, but of course there's more to it than that. The Japanese character for "monkey" can also be read as the word for fate or luck. The abundant number 100 is likewise considered fortunate. So one hundred monkeys would be a double dip of good luck. Curiously, an essay about the exhibit mentioned that the number of monkeys in this scroll falls short of one hundred. There was, however, a nearby scroll with one hundred rabbits. (Our docent had counted them.) Hmmm.

Detail from Uedo's "Fox's Wedding Procession" (19th c.) 
One of my favorite works in the show was the screen on which artist Uedo Kocho created his "Fox's Wedding Procession." Foxes were known to be shapeshifters that could transform themselves from an animal into a human. Most often, the fox took the form of a beautiful woman who would trick a man into marrying her. In Uedo's work, though, the figures are half fox and half man with some seriously developed calves. All the better to carry the (hidden) bride in her palanquin to the festivities.

In this work, the artist is making reference to the over-the-top wedding rituals of highly ranking members of the warrior class. His political commentary seems quite thinly veiled, especially when you see the entire screen.

Yayoi Kusama Dogs
A surprising aspect of the exhibit was the inclusion of some contemporary art. Typically, the work served a comparative purpose. So, for instance, three polka dot dogs by Yayoi Kusama were found near an earthenware Hanwi dog that has survived from the 6th or 7th century.

The final room of the show, however, was dedicated to contemporary work. An enormous mural by Murakami Takashi entitled "In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow" wrapped around three walls of the gallery. Takashi created the work in response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan in 2011. The wild and unsettling mural included images of both devastation and hope, with animals like the mythical phoenix and a rare white elephant representing the prospect for a better future.

Issey Miyake fashions with Murakami Takashi
mural in the background
Takashi's work served as a colorful backdrop for a display of Issey Miyake designs inspired by animals and their environment. Many items of clothing were created from a single piece of fabric and had names like Swallow Pleats, Colombe (Dove) and Blade of Grass Pleats. I am unclear whether this ferocious figure is adorned with anything actually intended to be worn -- perhaps the saddle bags?  It is surely striking, though.

The wall card describing Miyake's work concludes by saying, "Although Miyake's clothing results from contemporary techniques for processing fabric, it also connects to the ancient custom of humans masquerading as animals to assume their power or grace, still seen today in festivals and rituals all over the world."

The Life of Animals in Japanese Art runs through August 18 at the National Gallery of Art. If you're not in the DC area, the museum's website includes some great information about the exhibit, including an audio guide featuring descriptions and images of 20+ objects. Click here to learn more.

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