Animals in Japanese Art at Honolulu Museum of Art

Zoological imagery has a mysterious appeal. Animals in Japanese Art, on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) March 30–July 23, will showcase a menagerie of paintings and sculptures from the museum’s permanent collection that date as early as the 15th century. The works consider relationships to the environment, parody human behavior and highlight topics in Japanese history.

“Apparent in sources as diverse as Aesop’s fables and contemporary cartoons, depictions of various species raise our awareness about the prevalence of nature,” Shawn Eichman, curator of Asian art at HoMA, said. “Japanese art is abundant in such imagery, from paintings made for the highest levels of court to humble toggles intended for daily use. These representations of the wild encourage us to reflect upon how we interact with other life forms and our environment in general.”

In some cases of animals in Japanese art, humorous badgers, mysterious foxes and fearsome lion-dogs featured in the exhibition function as commentaries about the curious behavior of humans. Frolicking Animals, an early copy of a set of handscroll paintings, depicts various beasts that mimic homo sapiens as they play games, dance, make music and perform religious ceremonies. The Tokyo National Museum recently displayed this important artwork alongside the original 12th-century paintings that inspired it.

Many subjects in this animals in Japanese art exhibition possess symbolic meaning that refer specifically to Japanese history and mythology. Horses, which commonly represent wealth and power, are believed to carry messages to the heavens. These divine horses are sometimes painted on popular votive panels (ema) and donated to shrines. The exhibition includes one such plaque dated to 1868, when, after centuries of military dictatorship, the Imperial family was restored to power and ushered in the modern age.

Other exhibition highlights include Stable, a six-panel screen from the Momoyama period, late 16th-early 17th century; Badger Studying a SutraFlowers and Sea Creatures and Black Carp, hanging scrolls from the Edo period; and additional paintings rarely on display.

About the Honolulu Museum of Art

A vital part of Hawaiʻi’s cultural landscape, HoMA is a unique gathering place where art, global worldviews, culture and education converge in the heart of Honolulu. In addition to an internationally renowned permanent collection, the museum houses innovative exhibitions, an art school, an independent art house theatre, a café and a museum shop, within one of the most beautiful, iconic buildings in Hawaiʻi.    

The museum inspires and uplifts the community through transformative art experiences that celebrate creativity, cultivate wonder, foster empathy and enhance knowledge in order to deepen our connections with one another and the world we share.

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