Jakuchū. When I first heard that name a few years ago, I thought it was spelled “Jack Chu” and imagined him to be a Hollywood stereotype from a 1950s B movie; a sardonic Chinese-American in a garish Aloha shirt hanging around outside his dingy gin joint in Honolulu sometime just after WWII. You know who I’m talking about, right? Well, I sure was wrong about this Jakuchū! He was the antithesis of the sleazy 20th century Hawaiian barkeeper of my making; an eccentric, 18th century artist who lived the sober Zen life in old Kyoto. What the two Chus did have in common, besides homophonics, was an appreciation of cocks and squids, a flare for vivid colors and a subversive sense of humor.
My wife introduced me to Jakuchū in the summer of 2013. She had me drive us nearly 300 kilometers north to Fukushima, straight through the nuclear no man’s land and beyond to the capital of the violated prefecture. She promised a rare glimpse of some otherworldly art. American Joe Price was exhibiting his collection of Jakuchū works in hopes of promoting the reconstruction of the region that had lost so much in the Hell sent triple disaster of 3.11, 2011. I thought of the trip as a kind of homage to the unfortunate people of Fukushima.
The poster in front of the museum looked more like an ad for a new animation version of Kipling’s Jungle Book — an ovaline elephant surrounded by a colorful troupe of jungle characters — all presented in a purely digital format! Not a stroke of the pseudo-Sino scenes I had come to expect from classical Japanese art exhibits.
Once inside the world of Jakuchū’s uncanny observation and imagination, the panoply of subjects, styles, textures and tones was dizzying. There were the traditional Chinese landscapes and Bodhidharma, alarmingly colorful birds — wild and domestic — simple ink on paper sumi-e, and horizontal silk scrolls stretching the full width of the room cataloging an encyclopedia of plants, animals and insects that populated 18th century Japan.
When I showed the Jakuchū catalog to vegetable seed breeders from the Takii Seed Company, they were impressed with the artist’s finite detail and with the fact that many of the vegetables he so devotedly depicted are no longer in existence. Now there’s a scary thought. It makes you wonder how much of nature’s diminishing cornucopia will survive the next two centuries.
Jakuchū definitely knew his veggies – he was the heir to a wealthy Kyoto greengrocer wholesaler. He only started painting when he was forty, after running the family business for 17 years. It was the financial success of that business that gave him the freedom to paint whatever he liked with the best materials and with no need for sponsors.
Today, it doesn’t seem likely that veggie wholesaling would be all that profitable, but then I thought about the economy of that day and realized that in an agricultural economy, controlling the food supply could be the ticket to immense wealth. A clever wholesaler could monopolize the market and then pay poor farmers minimum prices while charging dependent retailers maximum rates. Isn’t that how food empires like Dole and United Fruit did it? The farmers did the work, the store owners took the risk and the wholesaler painted beautiful pictures — gentle art born of heartless capitalism.
Birds of all feathers rule the roost at the Jakuchū exhibit. My avian knowledge is limited, but I was able to recognize the very real cocks, hens, ducks and cranes. I thought the several cock paintings were redundant until I realized that each one is distinctly different in features, feathers and posturing. And they, like all Jakuchū’s birds, boast feathers with the most minute, almost microscopic detailing. But most impressive of all were the amazing firebirds, glorious mythological creatures brilliantly depicted without benefit of living models – a feat I have been told is a great challenge for the best trained artists. Another Jakuchū miracle; he mastered the art with virtually no formal training, no master, no peer group and no students, something difficult in any society and inconceivable in the highly structured Japanese art world. This man must have been a master diplomat as well to avoid being the subject of murahachibu, the merciless Japanese convention of ostracization. He must have been helped in this feat by gifting so many of his works to the powerful Buddhist temples of Kyoto.
Jakuchū was born in Kyoto in 1716. When he turned 40 he left the family business to his younger brother and spent the rest of his life painting. In those days, 40 was the beginning of the elderly stage of life called shoro, because most people didn’t live beyond 50. But Jakuchu went on to live a second life as an artist for 44 years and he died at 84. His fame came during his lifetime as he was second only to Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-95). His works were largely forgotten in time, partly because he gave so many of them away to temples and the Imperial Collection where they were hardly ever seen by the public. The man and his works faded into near oblivion for nearly 200 years.
I don’t know much about art history or painting techniques, but I do like to take photographs and I can appreciate things like composition, perspective, dimension, color, and contrast. I see a lot of all those qualities in Jakuchū’s paintings, plus a subtle sense of humor that adds a Where’s Waldo quality to his work.
His professional name “Jakuchū” (若冲) comes from the Dao De Jing (道徳経) of the 6th century BCE and means “like the void.” Today, as the world rediscovers Jakuchū’s paintings, nobody would say he seems at all like a void. The lines of visitors that swarm the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum to see the exhibit have stretched all the way around the museum grounds all day, every day since April 21st with the usual waiting time of three to four hours.