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Spring Festival: A Symphony of “Sakura” and Art

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The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, in Kitanomaru Park, is exhibiting renowned spring artworks to coincide with viewing of the cherry blossoms for which the park is famous.

Great Works Depicting Spring Blooms

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, (MOMAT) will display 200 works carefully selected from over 13,000 in its possession in an exhibition from February 11 to June 14. During the first half, until April 12, one room will be dedicated to eight famous Japanese paintings of cherry blossoms.

The museum holds its Spring Festival season from March 17 to April 5, with special blossom-viewing boxed lunches and sparkling wine available for purchase in front of the building. Crimson felt-covered benches will be provided for visitors to relax on while savoring the sight of the sakura in the Imperial Palace and Kitanomaru Park. 

Tsurumi Kaori, a MOMAT curator, explains that the materials used in Japanese painting are fragile, and for this reason they are only displayed for a limited period each year. At the museum’s last four spring festivals, the most popular paintings were Kawai Gyokudō’s Yuku haru (Parting Spring), Kikuchi Hōbun’s Kosame furu yoshino (Fine Rain on Mount Yoshino) and Funada Gyokuju’s Hana no yūbe (Flowers (Image of Evening)). She recommends that art lovers take the opportunity to visit this year’s exhibition, in which the three pieces will again be displayed together.

Funada Gyokuju, Flowers (Image of Evening), 1938, (left) and Kawai Gyokudō, Parting Spring, 1916.
Funada Gyokuju, Flowers (Image of Evening), 1938, (left) and Kawai Gyokudō, Parting Spring, 1916.

Insights into Japanese Paintings

A few points will help viewers to better appreciate these three paintings, providing an understanding of the basics of Japanese art.

In her talks at the museum, Tsurumi prompts visitors by asking if the screen should be viewed starting from the right, or the left. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, traditionally, Japanese paintings are viewed starting from the right.

In Kawai Gyokudō’s Parting Spring, the blossoms are sparse in the panel furthest to the right, but their number increases as viewers shift their gaze leftwards, where finally, they are in full bloom. Thus, one can appreciate the passage of time within the painting. It is as though the viewer is passing under the sakura.

Kawai Gyokudō, Parting Spring, 1916. (Right half of a pair of six-panel folding screens)
Kawai Gyokudō, Parting Spring, 1916. (Right half of a pair of six-panel folding screens)

Kawai Gyokudō Parting Spring, 1916. (Left half of a pair of six-panel folding screens)
Kawai Gyokudō Parting Spring, 1916. (Left half of a pair of six-panel folding screens)

Kikuchi Hōbun’s Fine Rain on Mount Yoshino also imparts a sense of hiking up the mist-covered mountain for cherry blossom viewing. Tsurumi encourages viewers to pay particular attention to the expression of the rain. Note also that Kikuchi painted the petals while the screen was upright, with gravity causing the paint to trickle before drying, giving the impression of waterdrops on each petal. This is something that can only be appreciated by seeing the actual artwork.

Kikuchi Hōbun, Fine Rain on Mount Yoshino, 1914. (Right half of a pair of six-panel folding screens)
Kikuchi Hōbun, Fine Rain on Mount Yoshino, 1914. (Right half of a pair of six-panel folding screens)

Kikuchi Hōbun, Fine Rain on Mount Yoshino, 1914. (Left half of a pair of six-panel folding screens)
Kikuchi Hōbun, Fine Rain on Mount Yoshino, 1914. (Left half of a pair of six-panel folding screens)

Apparently, the vivid pink of Flowers (Image of Evening) was created with a dye that Funada Gyokuju imported from Germany. A great silvery moon can be seen in the shadows of the brilliant petals. It is harder to discern from a photo, which is one more reason to visit the exhibition.

Atomi Gyokushi’s Ōka zukan (Scroll of Cherry Blossoms), depicting over 40 varieties of sakura, is also on display, along with Yasuda Yukihiko’s painting of the blossom goddess Konohanasakuyahime. A tatami mat floor-space has been created in the gallery for visitors to relax and imagine themselves enjoying hanami.

A section of Atomi Gyokushi’s 25-panel, 12-meter long Ōka zukan (Scroll of Cherry Blossoms), featuring 40 rare species of sakura.
A section of Atomi Gyokushi’s 25-panel, 12-meter long Ōka zukan (Scroll of Cherry Blossoms), featuring 40 rare species of sakura.

Cézanne and Others on Show

Tsurumi Kaori, who curated the sakura corner of the exhibition.
Tsurumi Kaori, who curated the sakura corner of the exhibition.

MOMAT Collection features around 200 works carefully selected from the museum’s holdings, displayed from the second to the fourth floor. In addition to works featuring sakura, Paul Cézanne’s renowned Grand bouquet de fleurs (Large Bouquet of Flowers) is on display, together with a large array of floral paintings by modern artists, to impart a sense of spring to visitors as they explore the museum.

What better way to savor spring than to combine flower-viewing with a stop at the museum to imagine the sakura seen by past masters?

Visitors relax in front of the museum in 2018. During the Spring Festival season, a food truck sells refreshments and souvenirs in the museum’s front yard. A special Spring Festival Talk Rally will take place in both Japanese and English on April 5.
Visitors relax in front of the museum in 2018. During the Spring Festival season, a food truck sells refreshments in the museum’s front yard. A special Spring Festival Talk Rally will take place in both Japanese and English on April 5.

Spring Festival in The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

  • Dates: March 17 to April 5 (spring floral masterpieces exhibited February 11 to April 12)*The museum will be closed from February 29 to March 15 as part of measures to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. For details of opening plans after that time, please check the official site using the link below.
  • Address: 3-1 Kitanomaru-koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
  • Access: 3 minutes’ walk from Exit 1b, Takebashi Station, Tokyo Metro Tōzai Line (T-08)
  • Closed: Mondays (except open March 30)
  • Hours: Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (admission until 4:30 pm). Friday and Saturday: 10:00 am to 8:00 pm (admission until 7:30 pm)
  • Official website: https://www.momat.go.jp/english/am/exhibition/springfest2020/

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Funada Gyokuju, Flowers (Image of Evening). Interview and text by Nippon.com. Photos courtesy The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.)

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