This isn’t really going to be about chickens. Let me just say that right now.

shake a tail feather

What it is going to be about is an artist that I am researching for a seminar class this semester, Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800). One of the so-called “eccentric” painters of the Edo period, Jakuchū lived and worked in Kyoto at a time of great innovation and individuality with respect to the development of painting styles. Unaffiliated to any formal school, he experimented with a wide range of techniques and themes, and is particularly well known for his dynamic paintings of chickens. It should tell you something of his skill that he has generated such critical acclaim over a subject matter so apparently mundane. I say apparently, for Jakuchū’s chickens are gorgeous and fantastical polychrome explosions of hyper-realistic detail, or poetic monochrome ink evocations infused with a vitality that elevates these humble birds to the avian status equivalent of a phoenix.

One purpose of the seminar is to identify new avenues of research on this artist, who has experienced a resurgence in popularity since the 1970s and whose exhibitions continue to draw huge crowds in Japan. The methodology that my professor is adopting is to analyze how the construction of a monograph on one particular artist can be used to understand the cultural environment of painting in 18th century Kyoto more generally, whilst bringing to light the problems and pitfalls of the monograph model itself.

How do we go about formulating a monograph? It seems obvious to start with existing biographical data and build up a picture of the socio-historical conditions the artist might have lived in. That is, we place the artworks in “context” to explain why they look like and mean the things they do. We’re fortunate that information from contemporary sources regarding Jakuchū is diverse and according to conventional standards, reliable. He became highly respected in his later years and is accordingly represented in art historical writings of the period that range from historical to the personal.


Born into a merchant family of wholesale greengrocers, at 23 Jakuchū was made the head of the family when his father passed away. His character proved unsuited to running the family business, but this was not the case of the eldest son frittering away the family fortunes on girls or gambling (c’mon, we’ve all been there). Reportedly reclusive by nature, he devoted himself to painting, living as an ermetic lifestyle as possible given his familial responsibilities. Jakuchū’s output really begins from his 40s after he had transferred the business to his younger brother and was able to devote himself to painting full-time. It also seems clear that Jakuchū’s Buddhist beliefs played a major part in shaping his life, since he became a lay monk and led a largely monastic lifestyle. The name Jakuchū, which means ‘like a void’ (I KNOW, delicious isn’t it?) was likely given to him by his friend and supporter, the monk Daiten Kenjō. Interestingly, he seems to have been preoccupied with his own death to an unusual degree – his funeral stele was bought and paid for, erected and inscribed when he was just 51, three decades before his eventual death, and from around this time he was also making payments in order that his annual funeral observances be made, even though he wasn’t yet, you know… dead.

Leaving aside issues of factual accuracy, there is a larger theoretical question about how we approach this information to study his art in the first place. By establishing links between historical circumstances and artworks, the problem often arises whereby a comparative analysis (between social conditions and image) is made causal (social conditions caused the image). Our long love affair with the authoritative written word means that we tend to privilege textual information over the visual, but what grounds do we have to think that these two kinds of representation are fundamentally different kinds of things? When you think about it, any kind of text is subject to the same questions as an artwork is. It was still made by someone for a purpose, whether consciously articulated or not. All historical artefacts are parts of a wider cultural milieu and it is surely better to think of them collectively as a mutually reinforcing network, rather than a one-directional causal sequence. But if everything relies on everything else, then how do we provide art historical explanations for how works of art came to be – do the textual sources provide a context in which to view the paintings, or the paintings provide a context in which to read the sources? And there you have it, the perennial problem of the chicken and the egg (sorry).

If historical texts are creations in the same way that artworks are, what impact does this have for our current project, the construction of a monograph? For some, the various identities that have been ascribed to Jakuchū over recent decades are outgrowths of the social consciousness at the time of their formulation. For instance, the Jakuchū “boom” of the early 1970s was brought about largely by the work of the scholar Tsuji Nobuo, who identified Jakuchū as a member of a ‘lineage’ of eccentric artists in the Edo period. For Tsuji, Jakuchū was a man who gave up the trappings of a materialistic lifestyle and a comfortable life in pursuit of a more lofty purpose. We can interpret this celebration as a reaction to the ‘salaryman’ boom culture in Japan in the 1950s and 60s, just one manifestation of the worldwide economic miracle of the time that embraced a culture of conspicuous consumption. To those who sought an alternative to the consumerist race to Americanize, Tsuji offered an example from within Japan’s own cultural history. In the 1980s, Tsuji’s pupil Satō Yasuhiro offered a new identity for Jakuchū as an individualist who pursued his own goals. This ideal prototype of the individual abandoning his family commitments and forging a personal identity was a reaction against a generation defined by apathetic indifference to the social norms it had inherited.

sizing up the competition

What does this mean for 2010? I am entirely unable to give an account of my own fragmentary state of mind, let alone articulate a coherent thread that could be identified as our contemporary contextual Zeitgeist. We cannot deny that history is written in the present, that is, the historian’s present. The practice of history enables us to articulate and address our own cultural crises; we can’t help but draw the boundaries of historical context according the priorities of our own contemporaneity. A flagrant and individualistic example being my tendency to focus on information that suggests Jakuchū was a reclusive, morbid lunatic, because I am a reclusive, morbid lunatic. We must at least try to be aware of our viewpoints, and the strength of the unconscious influence these may have on our interpretations.

So, what does this mean for us? Well for me really, I’m speaking figuratively. Philosophical quagmires are almost entirely pointless and unless we’re content to sit in self-satisfied silence (I’m proficient in one but not the other) we have to take responsibility and set out our priorities for where we think the boundaries of context should lie and say something, otherwise the question of “context” threatens to devastate the possibility of art historical inquiry altogether. But I’m no chicken.

Bring it.

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