Nature has traditionally played a major role in Japanese art, both as subject in painting and printmaking and as decorative motif on art objects such as ceramics, metalwork, and lacquer ware. Japanese sensitivity to the natural world is rooted in a native shamanistic religion -- Shinto -- through the belief that deified spirits animate the rivers, mountains, and trees. As the Indian religion of Buddhism spread within Japan, it further reinforced this sensitivity by teaching that it is wrong to destroy any living thing.
During the Edo period, this preference for subject matter drawn from nature was cultivated simultaneously with other emerging artistic interests. Early in the eighteenth century, after nearly a hundred years of prohibition, the ban on Westem books was lifted. These works attracted the attention of and inspired many educated Japanese, who were curious about Western illusionistic and perspective techniques. Concurrently, the newly established Maruyama-Shijo school of painting emphasized careful observation and naturalism as an alternative to more traditional modes of composition and imagery derived from Chinese and native Japanese schools. These artistic developments together stimulated the popularity of nature studies in a multitude of printed forms.
This exhibition focuses on insects, birds, fish, and small animals portrayed in their physical environment. The lively and vibrant depictions of nature printed in significant numbers from the end of the eighteenth century onward are represented here by a variety of works: pages from lavishly illustrated books, privately published prints, an artist's sketchbook, sketchbooks published as printed books, and illustrations from botanical volumes. These finely observed and rendered prints reveal the world of East Asian nature, in which man plays only a small part.