Where the Wild Things Are: The Life of Animals in Japanese Art

Murakami Takashi’s “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow”, Heisei Period, 2014 acrylic on canvas with Issey Miyake animal-thematic couture. (Kelly MacConomy)

There’s a new show in town and it’s a blockbuster.

By Kelly MacConomy

ALEXANDRIA, VA-“The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” at the National Gallery of Art puts on exhibit an extensive collection of wildly diverse media representing 17 centuries, from 5th century ceramics to contemporary fashion and digital art. It proves that great contemporary art can invite and excite with insanely progressive creativity, while still respecting impeccable scholarship.

Banner for the exhibit “The Life of Animals
in Japanese Art” at the National Gallery of Art East Wing. (Kelly MacConomy)

Show curators worked in consultation with highly regarded Japanese historians, bringing together art from both public and private Japanese and American collections, including seven Important Cultural Properties (designated as such by the Japanese government).

Yayoi Kusama’s 2013 Sho-Chan dog sculpture. (Kelly MacConomy)

Gallery after gallery reveals treasures that thrill the eye and mind. There is towering armor adorned with animal idolatry juxtaposed with Kusama Yayoi’s cartoonish, vibrantly colored animal sculptures. Exquisitely woven and decorated textiles with an animal-motif twist are spotlighted throughout the exhibit, from the classic kimono to the artful couture designs of fashion icon Issey Miyake.

This extraordinary exhibition, which covers 18,000 square feet, goes way beyond traditional precepts of Japanese art, delivering a dynamic punch of pet-playful appeal for all ages and interests. Compelling artwork from ancient to technological times depicts animals realistic, fantastical, metaphorical, and allegorical employed in both religious and secular forms. There are upwards of 300 objects on display, from the Kusama animals’ “konichiwa!” to the dramatic finale: a mural masterpiece encompassing two walls floor-to-ceiling with Miyake models in the middle. It is a breathtaking experience.

Detail of Takashi masterpiece, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of the Rainbow.” (Kelly MacConomy)

The ongoing accompanying film series includes Roosters, Rabbits and Monkeys: Animals of the Zodiac; Dragons, Tigers, and Phoenix: Auspicious Animals; and Butterflies, Fish, and Puppies: Animals and the Four Seasons. All films and activities are free of charge.

“The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” has been brilliantly curated by Robert T. Singer, head of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with Masatomo Kawai, director of the Chiba City Museum of Art.

When Zebra toured the exhibit, the galleries were occupied by intensely engaged families, enraptured couples, and accidental curators debating exhibit design choices. Even the perennially stoic guards had smiles on their faces with expressed interest in the feel-good art extolling animals on parade.

Samuri and horse armor, early 19th century Japan. (Kelly MacConomy)

“The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” is on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through Sunday, August 18. It will leave the DMV in August for LA, opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in September.

The exhibition is located on the lower Concourse level of the East Wing building. When you visit don’t forget to take the elevator up to the rooftop gallery for selfies with Katharina Fritsch’s Blue Rooster, titled “Hahn/Cock”, formerly on display at London’s Trafalgar Square, on loan from the Glenstone Collection in Potomac, Maryland.