Media only: Barbara Kram: 202.633.0520
Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.633.0523

Cranes, monkeys, turtles, ducks, a peacock and a tiger will be on parade at the Freer Gallery from Jan. 31 through July 18 in “Birds and Beasts in Japanese Art,” a new exhibition highlighting the Freer’s diverse and visually exciting collection of Japanese bird and animal paintings. An important subject since prehistoric times, when representations appeared as linear designs on bronze objects such as mirrors and on funerary sculpture, Japanese bird and flower painting was later strongly influenced by Chinese methods of ink painting. These were imported to the Japanese archipelago during the 13th and 14th centuries by the Chinese founders of Zen Buddhist temples and their Japanese warrior patrons.

A small exhibition in an adjacent gallery, “The Tea Ceremony as Melting Pot,” features an eclectic variety of Chinese, Southeast Asian, Korean and Japanese jars, bowls, cups, dishes, boxes and a water holder. These illustrate how exotic foreign ceramics, imported during a period of vigorous international commerce during the 16th and early 17th centuries, were integrated into the ceremony and influenced the development of a new range of Japanese ceramic styles.

Birds and Beasts in Japanese Art

Japanese portrayals of birds and animals are characterized by the close observation of nature and the seasons. Influenced by Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, many birds and animals are associated with specific symbolic meanings. The tortoise and the crane symbolize longevity and the phoenix the reign of a great and just emperor. A pair of mandarin ducks-a bird often associated with autumn- symbolizes marital accord while monkeys reaching for the reflection of the moon in water symbolize the illusory nature of existence. A frog perched on a lotus leaf represents the inherent sanctity of all sentient beings while mice and rats may symbolize both benevolence and malevolence within the same story.

The Freer’s images of birds and beasts appear in a large variety of media ranging from hanging scrolls, in painted albums and books, to folding screens, lacquer boxes and mirrors. The extraordinary variation in style ranges from a highly realistic, detailed scroll of mallards and mandarin ducks painted by Maruyama Okyo (1733–1795) to two almost 9-foot-long hanging scrolls picturing strikingly abstract images of cranes by Ito Jakuchu (1716–1800). A hanging scroll painted by Mori Sosen (1747–1821)—later known as a specialist in monkey paintings, an example of which is on view—demonstrates how painters used the limited palette of Japanese mineral pigments to depict the peacock’s blue and green plumage. A highly stylized rendering of a crane floating on rolling waves beneath a circular red sun and a peach tree illustrates the influence of both Japanese conventions and contemporary Chinese polychrome flower and bird painting on the work of Okamoto Shuki (1807–1862). A cat-like tiger by Katayama Yokoku (1760–1801) bears witness to the popularity of exotic foreign animals brought to Japan and exhibited for popular entertainment during the Edo period. Exquisitely decorated boxes demonstrate the Japanese technique of embedding pictorial designs rendered in gold and silver particles in lacquer. Bronze mirrors dating from the 5th to the 14th centuries are also on view.

The Tea Ceremony as Melting Pot

The development of the refined social interaction and entertainment known as the tea ceremony in 16th and early 17th-century Japan coincided with a period of vigorous trade, as Japanese copper, silver, iron and craft items were shipped abroad and raw silk thread and cloth, spices and medicines were imported. The first tea utensils had come from China in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw the import of a larger variety of exotic ceramic containers from a broader variety of cultures including Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia. Many, though manufactured for other purposes, were enthusiastically integrated into the tea ceremony, forming an eclectic variety of unmatched utensils for preparing tea. Some bore strikingly colorful glazes and painted patterns on white grounds that appealed to Japanese collectors and influenced the output of Japanese Mino kilns. Cizhou-type ware from southern Chinese kilns inspired both the ware known as Shino, with white glaze over decoration rendered in iron pigment, and Oribe ware typified by copper-green glaze patches juxtaposed to iron decoration. This small exhibit displays a variety of imported utensils, many of which became so integrated into the Japanese tea ceremony repertory that their provenance was forgotten and they were considered to be Japanese.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the special, exhibition-related section of the galleries’ web site