In the past five minutes, in every country in the world, thousands of photos and videos of animals have been posted to Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube. For as long as there has been art, there have been images of animals. Whether on apartment, cave, or pyramid walls; on T-shirts; on totem poles; or in worship structures, these representations have underscored the intense relationship between humans and other creatures. The exhibition, “Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California, examines animal-themed art through a wide lens of categories related to lifestyle, spiritual climate, and religious views. The exhibition begins with objects that date to shortly before the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century and extends to present-day examples.
The show focuses on the way Japanese people have projected their emotions onto living things in ways both creative and humorous; more significantly, it indicates the importance of animals in the Japanese cultural imagination. Since Japan’s prehistoric Jomon period, Japanese artists have depicted an immense range of creatures, including amphibians, insects, and fish, as well as mythical beasts. The 180 works on display in Every Living Thing cover 16 centuries and are divided into 8 sections: ancient Japan; the Japanese zodiac; religion: Buddhism, Zen, Shinto; myth and folklore; the world of the samurai; the study of nature; the natural world: creatures on land, in the air, and in rivers and seas; and the world of leisure.
Japan has one of the oldest ceramic traditions in the world and is characterized by the unusual esteem held by ceramics within its artistic tradition. Ceramics have been used in a wide variety of ways to portray the loving, worshipful, or fearful connections between humans and animals—as vessels, cups, platters, or discrete sculptural objects. The animals portrayed are shamanistic symbols, chimera, signs of the zodiac, or images drawn from daily life. The exhibition’s starting point is with Shinto, a religious practice native to Japan. Shinto is the way of the kami (spirits) and involves the worship of divine powers manifested in nature.
One of the oldest, largest, and most unearthly sculptures in the exhibition introduces the show—a Shinto 6th-century haniwa horse that stands nearly 4 feet tall and is one of the largest known sculptures of this animal from the period. The sacred horse, or shinme, is the preferred mount of the kami identified with Shinto shrines. Haniwa are unglazed terra-cotta statues made during Japan’s Kofun period, so named for the mound-like tombs constructed for clan chieftains. Haniwa means “circle of clay” and refers to the way sculptures were placed in a circular arrangement around the tomb. These decorative and spiritual grave offerings served as a kind of retaining wall for the tombs, but were also present to protect the deceased in the afterlife. These were made in a range of forms including small houses, chickens, birds, fish, and humans. The eyes are always pierced through and almond shaped. Haniwa were created using the coiling or wazumi technique in which mounds of coiled clay were built up to shape the figure, layer by layer. The surface was smoothed using a wooden paddle. Parts such as arms and legs were made separately and then attached; details were carved into the wet clay.
The Japanese and Buddhist origin myths for the zodiac (literally circle of animals) consist of 12 animals used for a 12-year cycle: rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep/goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. It was mainly employed as a way of indicating the day/month/year, time of the day, and orientation in space, as well as the order in a sequence of events in a symbolic form. In the exhibition, the zodiac animals are present in many different manifestations. Animals also had meaning beyond the zodiac; they were popularly used in both myth and legend as characteristics of personality and as social critique. The importance of the zodiac; position of the moon can be seen in a set of 12 small 18th-century plates painted by Ogata Kenzan. These show the lunar year’s progression and birds typical of each season. In pre-modern times (prior to the early 19th century), different social classes had preferences for certain fauna. Members of the court preferred animals that had an elegant appearance and a gentle nature: cranes, deer, pheasants, ducks, oxen, and domesticated horses. Those in the warrior elite favored birds of prey, tigers, and other fierce animals. The middle class preferred the symbolism of the humble rat, which represents an excess of rice (wealth) at hand.
New Layers of Meaning
By the Edo period (1603–1868), animals were becoming pets and, with that change, animal representations took on new layers of meaning. There are many objects in the exhibition from that period, a colorful dog from the late 17th century and a small, decorative, mid-19th-century sculpture (an okimono) of a kimono-clad man with the head of a smiling badger. Badgers, typically depicted with large bellies, are linked with wealth and whimsy. In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists became interested in studying animals through observation and realistic representation—drawing or modeling animals from life rather than relying on traditional examples. The large Charger with Design of Lobster and Bamboo Leaves is a particularly beautiful example of this. This platter demonstrates a pure form of the edogonomi aesthetic, which stressed the absence of unnecessary distractions from the main subject.
The 19th century also brought about changes in terms of how the Japanese related to their environment; the definition of nature shifted to one more industrial and exploitative in character. Nature came to be seen more as a resource meant to serve the human sphere than as a condition in which humans and the environment were continuous and joined. Along with that change, the older tradition that spiritualized and anthropomorphized animals shifted to one far more sentimental and artificial.
This objectification of nature can be seen in several functional ceramic objects in the show, all from the mid-19th century. These include two different hand warmers, one in the form of a rabbit, the other of two sleeping puppies. Rabbits and puppies are associated with peace, docility, and cuteness; these animals are far removed from their symbolic meanings in the zodiac. These hand warmers would have contained glowing charcoal embers for use during the cold winter months. The extraordinary functional Octopus Form Box of the late 19th century is a strange combination of realism and myth. It has the slightly clumsy structure of something made for export but manages to remain a striking and animated object.
Since prehistoric times, various animal forms and motifs have appeared in enormous variety in the visual arts and literature—they’ve encompassed the real, the imaginary, and the mythic. Animals are seen as human companions as frequently as they are seen as God-like beings with supernatural powers. In every time period and in every geographic location on earth, people have lived in coexistence with animals, they have been crucial to each other’s survival whether as food, companion, or spiritual guide. Over time, every culture has developed distinct ways of envisioning these relationships. Any contemporary visitor to Japan will note the central role creatures play in Japanese art, religion, and culture. Tourists remark on the adorable animal kitsch and the presence of animals in art, entertainment, and everyday life. The creatures depicted in Every Living Thing have inspired an extraordinary level of creativity that continues to this day as a vivid and essential part of Japanese culture.
the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.