Japanese Garden's flower painting exhibit opens
Portland Japanese Garden's newest art exhibit, open now through July 4, makes clear that there's more to the Japanese love of flowers than a few sprigs of cherry blossom in a vase. Ikebana (flower arranging) might be a minimalist art, but a different appreciation of flowers comes out in this show of watercolors.
The style of artwork in "Gifts from Japan: A Horticultural Tale Told through Botanical Art" at Portland Japanese Garden is mostly botanical-scientific. The flowers, usually with a stem and some leaves, float on white backgrounds, the better to focus their unique form. This isn't art that tells a story or evokes romance. It is more about the ideal form of each type of flower.
Many plants we might think of as native to the U.S. actually are native to Japan and were brought here. This includes such garden staples as irises, wisteria, azaleas and rhododendrons.
The works are on show in the Pavilion Gallery, but in the Tanabe Gallery next to the gift shop there's an introductory section. It explains how the West discovered exotic Japan after it reopened to the world in the later 1800s, at fairs and other expositions. Japanese pavilions and gardens were built (such as the centennial exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia) and flowers were an important draw. There are hand-tinted postcards and seed catalogs which look more like art books, such is the detail of the drawings. There is a 17th Century scroll showing ikebana samples (an instruction manual) and a book of illustrations of different maple leaves. The exhibit also makes clear that in World War II, Japanese interned in Oregon and Washington grew their own food and flowers, and Japanese people influenced the fruit cultivation in the Hood River area.
It's no surprise, then, to see white cherry blossom featured in the main show in the pavilion. Carolyn Supinka, the exhibition coordinator, is a poet and curated a selection of poems that go along with the different seasons and paintings in this exhibit.
Mieko Ishikawa's painting Yama Sakura (mountain cherry blossom) is paired with a haiku, as many paintings are. It reads:
Set the mountain in motion,
The haiku gives visitors an image of a mountain covered in white blossoms, waving in the wind.
"This is a really great example of botanical and scientific illustration, where Ishikawa really shows you this exact type of cherry tree," Sarah Kate Nomura, Assistant Director of Exhibitions, told the Portland Tribune.
"It's meant to help you identify this specific plant, but Ishikawa's also done it in a really aesthetically beautiful and pleasing way, where it's a work of art in its own right."
The show was curated by Aki Nakanishi, Curator of Culture, Art, and Education; and Robert Hori, botanical cultural curator and program director at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in California. There was an emphasis on showing plants which are native to Japan, and in showing many varietals of each plant. The chrysanthemum pieces are excellent examples.
The singular Sotetsu or sago palm is also amazing. A 200-million-year-old plant, it is straight out of Jurassic Park. The artist methodically lays out the palm leaf, the cone and the roots. Nomura said that Japan's climate going from subtropical to arctic meant that such hefty, slow-growing tropical plants were huge status symbols in Japan.
Another marvel is an oil-on-paper painting of a bonsai (miniature) Black Pine tree. The rough bark looks like oyster shells. It is photorealistic, with lots of green and black on a white background.
Some pieces were in a 2016 show called Flora Japonica (flowers of Japan), held at Kew Gardens in London, named after a book made in the early 1800s. It was the first documentation by Europeans of Japanese plants. (That show was Japanese artists drawing native Japan plants.)
Most of the artists are Japanese or Japanese American, although some non-Japanese are included. Akiko Enokido has two pieces, both on vellum. She captures the soul of the orange camellia flower in one of the pieces, highlighting its dark green, shiny leaves. The second camellia is white, and focuses entirely on one bloom.
"Vellum is a very traditional material for making art and writing text," Nomura said. "It's made out of really thin leather. Unlike paper, it doesn't absorb any of the water or pigment from the watercolor paint. It just sits on top and it lets you get that really rich color, but you need to do many thin layers. You can tell that she put a lot of work and a lot of close observation into creating this really beautiful piece."
Local artist Janet Parker also used a non-absorbent material. She created a delicate purple wisteria, using colored pencil on drafting film. All the pieces in the show bear close scrutiny.
This artist, Enokido, helped put the Portland show together. She is a member of a guild of botanical artists, as is Parker, which shows the dedication to this art.
IF YOU GO
What: Gifts from Japan: A Horticultural Tale told through Botanical Art
When: May 14 to July 4
Where: Portland Japanese Garden, 611 S.W. Kingston Ave, Portland OR 97205
Cost: Included with admission to the Pavilion Garden
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