Exhibitions/ Art Object

Mynah Birds

Unidentified Artist Japanese
Momoyama (1573–1615)–Edo (1615–1868) period
early 17th century
Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold on paper
Image (each screen): 61 x 142 1/8 in. (155 x 361 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation and Anonymous Gifts, 2013
Accession Number:
2013.21.1, .2
Not on view
A myriad of mynah birds—flying, strutting, and resting against the gold and blue of the shore—is captured in frozen motion. This is one of few surviving examples of the theme of a flock of blackbirds in a screen format. The artist has created an engaging sense of pattern through clever groupings while using punctilious brushwork to imbue each bird with animated expression.

Though not native to Japan, according to East Asian literary tradition, mynah birds served as emblems of honesty, independent thinking, and even resistance to unjust authority. Whether or not this work—created in Japan when the shogunate was beginning to usurp the prerogatives of the emperor and religious establishments—can be interpreted as a political protest is impossible to know, but the unusual iconography of clusters of mynah birds to the exclusion of any other animal, bird, or even landscape element lends itself to such an interpretation.

The Chinese monk-painter Mu Qi (active until 1279) is known to have created numerous paintings on the theme of mynah birds, and Japanese artists emulated Mu Qi’s compositions on the subject. The work dates to the era of Japanese painting when artists of the Kano school and independent artists such as Hasegawa Tōhaku (1539–1610) and Kaihō Yūshō(1533–1615) were reformulating continental styles of ink painting to create their own distinct styles.
Signature: unsigned
Soshiro Yabumoto Co., Ltd. Tokyo, late 1970s–early 1980s] [sold February 1986, Leighton Longhi, New York]; Betty Borman, Beverly Hills, CA, May 1986–;; [ Leighton R. Longhi Inc. , New York, February–May 28, 1986; sold to Borman] ; Betty Borman , Beverly Hills, California (1986–2013; sold in 2013, through Leighton R. Longhi Inc., New York , to MMA)
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