A bestselling Japanese writer has suggested the things we have in our ordinary life be viewed in terms of sparking joy. Should the same not be expected from a museum exhibit? “The Life of Animals in Japanese Art” at the National Gallery of Art promises that and much more with its exhibit of 300 extraordinary objects.

Unlike zoos, here the animals have been captured in wood, ink, metal, ceramics and cloth. Spanning nine galleries, the exhibit covers multiple themes of Japanese cultural life, starting with the 12 key zodiac representations of animals in terms of human traits.

Many attributions are unknown such as for the fifth- century Hanawa earthenware animals, which are on display near Yayoi Kusama’s 21st-century vibrant polka-dot fiberglass pieces. Kohei Nawa’s “PixCell-Bambi#14” is posed on a white cloud as a nod to the unknown artist of the stunning 14th-century “Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities.”

The diversity of the works’ moods ranges from dramatic to comic. Images from observation are endearing as dogs and cats and exotic like composites of elephants and tigers.

Each piece has its own story, both for what it shows and what it tells about Japanese social history when it was created. Prior to the mid-19th century and encounters with Western art, no distinction was made between fine art and decorative pieces. “Pair of Pillows with Baku” is an example of a decorative piece that also serves a purpose. The Baku is a composite beast that eats nightmares. Yamamoto Kozan’s “Rabbit-Shaped Censer” (1931) is a later example of a work that is both artistic and utilitarian.

Other works reveal hidden psychological meanings. To our eyes, Utagawa Toyokuni’s “Female Attendant Holding a Cat,” from the Edo period (late 18th to early 19th century) features an elegant woman holding her tamed domestic pet. But at the time, such a woman dressed in a rich red kimono would be perceived to be a courtesan and the cat a symbol of her erotic nature. Some viewers might not appreciate that the mice frolic and thrive in many works signify abundance and wealth to their neighboring humans. Nor is it surprising that in some works, the animals have human faces!

Poetry accompanies many of the scrolls. Stories can also be told through the objects itself, such as the 18th-century “Dancing Fox,” which depicts the shape-shifting trickster in the process of transforming from an animal to a seductress of young monks.

The flexibility of these images in stories is that such underlying meanings can always be dismissed as being “just a story.”

What is amazing to note is that pieces of sculpture—some as old as thousand years—which appear to be metal are really wood that has retained its integrity.

One of the most dramatic representations of animal symbolism are in the powerful selections in the Samurai Room. “Gusoku Armor with Deer Horns” is one such fine example of a work, which not only uses animal symbols to denote the characteristics of a warrior, but is fashioned from animal material like bear fur.

Birds and fishes might be the most popular motifs, appearing in items from luxurious robes to elegant screens. Robes, extraordinary for images of many kinds of birds, were not just created by skilled human hands; the silk crepe was produced by nature’s silk worms.

The exhibit’s final room is filled with contemporary forms. Issey Miyake’s 11 pleated dresses take center stage, drawing inspiration from birds and flowers, a starfish and a monkey. Unlike scrolls of cranes on golden background, Takashi Murakami’s acrylic on canvas, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” spans two walls in bold sweeps of reds, blues and blacks to recreate images inspired by earlier Japanese artists.

The complex status of animals in human existence and their representative meanings varies through time periods, but the animals and the significance as subjects in Japanese art is unchanged through time. What remains is that through art we can now share this understanding.

If you wish to take something to remember with joy, there is an excellent gift shop collection at the exit.

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