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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Reality or Imagination?

Marie Yanaka

Apr. 27, 2016

An exhibition is being held in Tokyo to commemorate the anniversary of Japanese artist Ito Jakuchu's birth 300 years ago.

Jakuchu is not as popular as the big Ukiyoe painters like Hiroshige or Hokusai from the same period, but that may be changing.

Recently his bold designs and unique techniques have been getting more attention, even from the younger generations.

Viewing his works can makes you forget that he was an artist who lived several hundred years ago.

Jakuchu earned great acclaim for his paintings of roosters. One of his best-known works is incredibly lifelike. It shows 13 of the birds flocking together.

The eyes are sharp, as are the detailed spots on the combs. Each feather is drawn individually, with lines less than a millimeter wide.

Jakuchu kept chickens in his garden and observed them closely. He was determined to breathe life into the plants and animals in his works.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a room containing Jakuchu's masterpiece of 33 scroll paintings, displayed together for the first time in Tokyo.

The Buddha Shakyamuni sits silently in the center. He is joined by animals and plants that represent the precious nature of all things that have been granted existence on Earth.

A school of fish swims in a lotus pond in one of the paintings. The leaves float on the surface. Is the perspective from above or below? Jakuchu takes the viewer to both places.

Colorful peonies fill another brilliant painting in his masterpiece -- red, white, pink. Birds keep watch, as horseflies flit about.

Jakuchu was a devout Buddhist. He spent a decade on this project, which he donated to Kyoto's Shokokuji temple.

Jakuchu was born in Kyoto early in the 18th century. When he turned 40, he dedicated himself to painting.

He preferred to follow his own path, rather than belonging to any school of art. The public applauded his work during his life. After his death, though, he's legacy gradually faded away.

Etsuko and Joe Price have made sure that we remember him. The Americans are the world’s biggest Jakuchu collectors. They were responsible for his rediscovery 2 centuries after his death.

Joe encountered a painting of grapevines 60 years ago at an art gallery in New York. It started him on a lifelong quest for the best of the artist's work.

In that painting, Jakuchu uses the sumi ink masterfully to show drooping vines heavy with grapes.

"I think Japanese art was always tied to nature. That was not just Jakuchu. Everybody enjoyed the beauty of nature," Joe Price says.

Jakuchu used his brush to depict his version of nirvana.

In another of his paintings on display at the exhibition, a sacred white elephant is surrounded by 28 animals, including a tiger, a monkey and a camel. On the left, a phoenix stands firmly on its 2 legs. Forty-five birds fill the space.

The ground colors are painted in one-centimeter squares, and are overlaid with similar colors. This unique “square-cell drawing” technique creates a 3-dimensional effect, similar to pixels in digital art, but painstakingly crafted by hand.

Jakuchu once said it would take a thousand years for people to understand the value of his art. But it's happening a lot sooner than that, and his work is influencing contemporary artists.

Kyoto, Jakuchu's hometown, is also the base for a younger artist who keeps his work down-to-earth. Masaya Kushino's shoe creations are seen around the world. The ornamentation is almost sculptural, but the works exist in the realm of fantasy.

Lady Gaga approves. She wears his shoes on stage, and off.

Kushino created a series based on the rooster, one of Jakuchu's favorite motifs. It's called "Bird-witched," a fusion of bird and bewitched. The shoe evolves into a rooster in 3 stages, one for each.

Traditional Nishijin silks adorn the shoe body. A sculptor custom-made the leg-shaped heel. Kushino himself dyed the feathers. From heel to toe, he was able to capture the life force of Jakuchu’s rooster.

"I think Jakuchu would have thought they were beautiful, and been impressed by their evolution beyond the human concept of what an animal is," Kushino says. "I love his spirit of inquiry about his subjects, as well as his love and deep involvement with them and his tenacity."

Kushino thinks uniting tradition and inspiration is what gives birth to his creations.

He spends time at Hosoo, a 400-year-old silk-weaving firm in Kyoto’s Nishijin area. Taking full advantage of its superior technique and the beauty of its materials, Hosoo expands their creation beyond Kimono.

Their first collaboration, in 2014, was an homage to Jakuchu. During that project, Kushino commuted to the workshop for about a month.

He consulted with the artisan weaver until they came to a complete understanding modifying the design again and again, down to the most minute detail.

He remade the patterns and samples scores of times, and stationed himself by the loom while the weaving was going on.

"I’ve collaborated with a lot of creative people, but not many of them get into the project like he did," said Masataka Hosoo, director at Hosoo Co., Ltd. "I was impressed by his zeal."

Like Jakuchu, Kushino embraces the natural world while unleashing his imagination. Realism, for them, is more than what meets the eye.

Kushino hopes that his works will inspire creators centuries in the future -- as did Jakuchu, who inspired him.

The retrospective of Jakuchu's work is on until May 24 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno.