Kacho-e: Masterpieces of Birds, Flowers, and Insects

Nourished by the principles of Shinto and Buddhism, the most exquisite expressions of Japanese culture have been rooted in a profound love and respect for the natural world. The specific tradition of kacho-e, which is most simply the depiction of flora and fauna, has a long visual and literary history. Imbued with metaphorical significance beyond their physical beauty, specific pairings of birds, insects, and flowers have formed the basis for a tradition that extends into the contemporary moment.

Birds & Flowers: Masterworks of Kacho-e showcases a rare collection of exquisite woodblock prints by such artists as Utamaro, Masayoshi, Hokusai, and Hiroshige, including prints from Utamaro’s famous The Book of Birds (1790) and The Book of Insects (1788). This exhibition features Hokusai’s acclaimed “Peonies and Butterflies,” from the master’s large flower series, and numerous additional prints from Hiroshige’s important studies of birds. Also included is a selection of prints by Koson (Shoson), Japan’s early 20th-century master of kacho-e. Softly colored, and exquisitely rendered with an elegant arrangement of space, each of these prints celebrates nature as a combination of sensual delights and lyrical expressions of emotion.

The 18th century, considered by many to be the golden age of ukiyo-e, was the flourishing moment of the prosperous and peaceful Edo period. Although Japanese woodblock printing was still a relatively nascent art form at the turn of the 1700s, artists quickly discovered new techniques for improving the appeal of their works, including increasingly delicate and sinuous lines, and the ability to incorporate dozens of color in a single printing technique, known as brocade prints, or nishiki-e. The “floating world” of the ukiyo-e genre most often depicted scenes of travel, pleasure, and entertainment: beautiful women, Kabuki actors, and other ephemeral indulgences of the newly emergent middle class. Many masters of the 18th century woodblock print also turned their talents to the longstanding poetic and artistic tradition of kachoe, images of birds and flowers. Koryusai (1735-1790) and Utamaro (1753-1806), two of the most important artists of the period, renowned for their images of beautiful women (bijin) and courtesans, both produced substantial work on the theme of nature. Utamaro produced three full printed books on the theme of nature, The Book of Insects (Ehon mushi erabi, 1788), Gifts of the Ebb Tide (Shiohi no tsuto, 1789), and Myriad Birds (Momo chidori, 1790). These exquisite prints pair playful and romantic kyoka poetry with depictions of the natural world, often using embossing and mica to emphasize the naturalism and textural quality of the different animals and plants. Kitao Masayoshi’s (1764-1824) series, Compendium of Pictures of Birds Imported from Overseas (Kaihaku raikin zui), demonstrates the increasingly intricate relationship between Japanese and Chinese art forms. Masayoshi was commissioned to interpret a pre-existing set of bird-and-flower handscroll paintings by a Chinese Nagasaki-school artist that documented a shipment of exotic Chinese birds in 1762. Masayoshi’s copy of these handscrolls, from around thirty years later, is faithful to the Chinese aesthetic and subject matter with its soft treatment of color, but at the same time, is undeniably the work of an accomplished Japanese woodblock artist.

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