The Pavilion for Japanese Art, just turned 25 years old, is now showing spectacular Edo paintings from the Etsuko and Joe Price collection. The first of two rotations boasts at least ten paintings attributed to Ito Jakuchū, the great “eccentric” painter of the 18th century. Among them is “one of the most startlingly original creations in the history of Japanese art”—a pair of six-panel screens called Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants. Oklahoma-born Joe Price was a key figure in the 20th-century rediscovery of Jakuchū, now the center of a Vermeer-like cult. Takashi Murakami invoked Jakuchū as an avatar of Superflat. (Below, small details of the Price Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants and Murakami’s The Castle of Tin Tin).
There is an animé playfulness to the grinning and scowling creatures, real and sci-fi fantastic, in Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants. But the “flattest,” most extraordinary thing is the technique. The Price screens’ imagery is composed of over 86,000 colored squares. Some might be called “pixels.” The white/tan border of the tiger’s cheeks has jaggies like an Atari video game. Other curves, such as the tiger’s stripes, disregard the grid. Many of the squares are homages to the square, with concentric layers of contrasting colors. One parallel is Chuck Close’s photo-based pixel paintings.
There are only three known Edo paintings in this pixellated style. The Price screens are superior to a variant in the Shizuoka Prefectural Art Museum. (You can see a small picture of one Shizuoka screen here.) A third, near-monochrome painting in a private collection, White Elephant and Other Beasts (left), bears the seal of Jakuchū.
How was anyone in the 18th century even thinking in these terms? The grid format closely follows Japanese textile designs of the period. Jakuchū had connections to Kyoto’s textile community in the Nishijn district. The Price screens (only) have a border much like those of textile designs.
Not everyone agrees that the Price (and Shizuoka) paintings are by Jakuchū, however. In the 1989 catalog to “The Paintings of Jakuchū,” Money L. Hickman and Yasuhiro Sato proposed that the Price and Shizuoka screens were 19th-century “works that simulated the conceptions and techniques developed by Jakuchū.” The catalog mentions another painting in this style, an eight-panel Sakyamuni and Sixteen Arhats once at the Osaka Municipal Museum and now lost.
Were the Price screens by a follower, even a century later, they’d still be the most ambitious paintings in this style, transcending any known model by Jakuchū and rivaling the experimentalism of the European post-impressionists.
Joe Price is convinced the screens are indeed by Jakuchū. He said last year,
“If you walk past this screen, in the proper lighting, the colors change on the animals and the birds. Jakuchū developed a method of using glossy and matte paint side by side on the same painting. The glossy paint gives off a reflective light. When you are right in front of it, with the horizontal light coming in, it bounces straight back. But if you are off to the side, you don’t see it. The matte paint diffuses the light. Light you see everywhere. So as you’re walking by, this animal will change almost into silk. The Metropolitan Museum sent their head scientist down with microscopic cameras, and he blew up these images so that you can see which parts are glossy and which parts are matte. This had to be a deliberate technique that Jakuchū applied when he painted the screen…”
For comparison, here’s another detail of the Price screens and a Chuck Close self-portrait. The current rotation of Price paintings runs through March 9; it’s replaced with another selection March 15 to April 20.