Nature's Energy, Artfully Distilled


Twelve Centuries of Japanese Art from the Imperial Collections

Sackler Gallery

Washington, D.C.

through March 8

Ancient myths say that the Japanese are descended from gods, or powerful nature beings. One was the sun goddess Amaterasu. On a whim, she once darkened the world by hiding in a cave.

She reappeared, of course, along with the belief that the Japanese Imperial family descended from these nature spirits. Now, the art treasures collected by these godlike leaders, and spanning 11 centuries, have traveled to the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Titled "Twelve Centuries of Japanese Art From the Imperial Collections," the exhibit has traveled from Japan for the first time. And it's unlikely the 56 rare paintings and 20 calligraphies will leave Japan again in our lifetimes.

Why has Japan sent these precious and fragile works now? To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the nearby Freer Gallery of Art, the Sackler's sister museum. The exhibition expresses the Japanese esteem for the gallery's founder, Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), who built this world-renowned collection of Asian art. But Freer stipulated that the gallery bearing his name show only objects from the permanent holdings, and so the display is at the Sackler.

Attention to nature prevails in this diverse showing of landscapes, Buddhist temples, animals, portraits of emperors, and poetry and calligraphy composed by rulers. In his glistening ink-and-gold scroll "Carp," Fujii Shorin (1824-1894) distilled nature's energies with these five jumping fish.

The large group of calligraphies also reveals the Japanese interest in nature. Chinese characters, and their Japanese derivations, are vivid, shorthand pictures of nature. These vitally rhythmic symbols, reflecting both constant change and universal laws of nature, can be experienced as dynamic, abstract art forms. One of these is Fujiwara no Yukinari's (927-1027) handscroll of graceful poems floating over cloudlike patterns.

These and the other treasures can be seen at the Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave., SW. The museum is free and open daily, 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.

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