Fiberglass animals by Kusama Yayoi // Photo: courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Animals In Japanese Culture Come to Life at National Gallery of Art

“Something old and something new” is what comes to mind when thinking about the National Gallery of Art’s new exhibition, The Life of Animals in Japanese Art.

Animals are the main thematic element, represented through mediums ranging from sculptures and fashion gowns to paintings and statues. There are also sculptures, couture gowns and other more interactive features, all depicting animals as a through line.

The exhibit contains more than 300 pieces of artwork, spanning from the fifth century to present day and was curated by Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Robert T. Singer and Chiba City Museum’s of Art Masatomo Kawai, in consultation with other Japanese art historians.

Because the collection focuses on one particular theme in a wide variety, visitors should expect a certain degree the desire to revisit, as the scope of the works likely requires a couple of views for one to fully grasp each artistic concept.

A piece that caught and kept my attention were three fiberglass cat statues by artist Kusama Yayoi; nestled just outside the main exhibit’s entrance. At first glance, the cats reminisce of figurines an aging cat lady might use as living room decor, but upon a deeper look, I pictured myself as a kid collecting stuffed animals similar to Yayoi’s aesthetic. The polka-dot statues make a very loud and playful statement with vibrant colors.

The main entrance opens up into a section on the 12 Zodiac animals from the Edo period. Here, wooden plaques with paintings of each animal were displayed. For those who don’t know, Japan follows the Chinese astrological system, in that certain animals are represented by birth years rather than birth months. In particular, learning about astrology and the characteristics along with the subject has always been an interest of mine, so this piece struck me on a personal level.

The entire collection ends with one of my favorites; a room of modern couture gowns by fashion designer Issey Miyake. Many art collections have fashion pieces but not like Miyake’s pleated designs. The dresses are displayed with mannequins on a runway-like platform, and I imagined the figurines coming to life by how they were positioned; in running stances as well as typical fashion poses.

Issey Miyake’s gowns // Photo: courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Visitors will be able to visually comprehend how Miyake’s inspiration of nature and animals flows through each pleat; with inspiration from starfish, monkeys and birds.

For more information about The Life of Animals In Japanese Art, visit here. The exhibition runs through August 18 at the National Gallery of Art’s East building.

National Gallery of Art: Constitution Avenue and 6th Street, NW, DC; 202-737-4215; www.nga.gov