Japanese screen collection explores five centuries of beauty


The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco offers glimpses of the elegant world of Japanese folding screens through an exhibit that opened Oct. 15 called “Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens.” The collection displays traditional Japanese art, starting from the Muromachi period (1392-1573) through the innovative and modern era of the late 20th century.

The exhibit showcases 41 boyobu, or Japanese folding screens, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago and the St. Louis Museum. This is the first time the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has held an exhibit dedicated to Japanese screens, according to Melissa Rinne, associate curator of Japanese art at the museum.

Japanese aristocrats and samurai families commissioned artists to paint folding screens as very luxurious furnishings that provided decorative pleasure and seasonal reminders. Unlike paintings on walls or sliding doors — another popular combination of art and furniture in Japan — screens could be transported easily from place to place and interchanged according to the occasion and season.

According to Rinne, the painting format had been brought to Japan from China by the 700s at the latest. Japanese-style paintings and Chinese tradition mixed together well in the Muromachi period.

“Landscape of the Four Seasons” by Sesson Shukei is a great example of this integration. As a Zen Buddhist monk painter, he depicts a panoramic, idealized Chinese landscape with ink and light color. Plum blossoms are drawn on the right side of the two six-panel screens, symbolizing spring, and a snow-covered mountain is painted on the left to represent winter. Presenting seasons in paintings is a typical idiosyncrasy in Japanese art.

The exhibit also showcases glamorous art screens from the Edo period (1603-1868). In “Bamboo with Chinese Yew and Deer with Maples,” Hasegawa Togaku depicts a pair of deer frolicking next to a grassy hill scattered with fallen maple leaves and golden clumps of bamboo leaves cascading across the surface, rounded out by vertical Chinese yew. This piece uses a hallmark technique of Japanese painting called moriage, or raised decoration, in the Chinese yew and maples. The technique uses a thick buildup of white pigment made of ground oyster shells called gofun. In this painting, the integration of Japanese art and Chinese culture still exists: Chinese poems are written above the Japanese motifs.

The exhibit lets viewers absorb themselves in elegant Japanese court life in the Edo period, as seen in “Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips” by Tosa Mitsuoki. Mitsuoki was the chief artist and director of the painting bureau of the imperial court. Unlike Kano school artists, the official painters of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the paintings commissioned by the imperial court are only drawn in yamato-e, a Japanese style of painting inspired by Tang Dynasty paintings. The screen tells a story of court life, where aristocrats enjoyed utaawase, or poetry contests. On the right side of a pair of two six-panel screens, Mitsuoki presents verses on slips that give tribute to the beauty of spring, hung in a cherry blossom tree. On the left panel, Mitsuoki has drawn poetry slips hung in crimson foliage that cherish the beauty of autumn, making great contrast to the right-side panel. Verses are written in different calligraphy styles, as if to show each poem was indeed written by a different aristocrat.

The exhibit is unique in that the museum introduces innovative ways to appreciate the collection. The museum categorizes each screen by its subject, such as plants, animals and human activities. It also lets viewers explore each piece by letting them guess what formats and material artists used.

“Because the collection is so diverse and sometimes hard to grasp, we wanted people to personalize the experience by offering various ways to look at screens,” said Rinne, who studied Japanese art history in Kyoto.

“Southern Barbarians” uses a progressive type format. It shows a large Portuguese trading ship with a full crew arriving at the port of Nagasaki in southern Japan. The story progresses to the right side of the pair of six-panel screens by showing Portuguese establishing a mission.

Another example of format is shown in “The Tale of Genji.” This folding screen tells the story of Genji, a playboy and an elegant and handsome son of the emperor, written by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu. Because the birth of Genji is shown in the right side of the panels and the story progresses to the left, viewers might suspect it is painted in progressive style. In fact, it used a format called “individual scene amidst gold clouds.” This format is used for screens which include multiple scenes, and the gold clouds separate each scene.

(Left to Right) The Tale of Genji (Early 17th century), Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips (approx. 1654), Blue Phoenix (1921), Landscape of the Four Seasons (1560) – images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

The exhibition explores beyond the traditional Japanese painting style: it shows how tradition meets innovation. In the 20th century, artists started to paint folding screens to show them at art exhibitions sponsored by the government. This new trend encouraged Japanese painters to break away from traditional conventions and create works with innovative compositions and colors.

“Relaxing in the Shade” by Yamakawa Shuho represents a modern theme using traditional technique. The painting depicts two modern girls on the beach surrounded by a broad-brimmed hat, a ukulele and a purse shaped like a volleyball with a handle. Yet, the sand is painted with oyster shell gofun.

Twentieth-century painters also used innovative materials and expressed their philosophy in their paintings. Okura Jiro produced “Mountain Lake Screen Tachi” during his 1990 residence at the Mountain Lake Workshop. The panels are made of black walnut painted black and red, and covered with gold leaf. The imitation gold leaf is adhered to the panel so loosely that it appears that it will fall off the screen. But this is the artist’s intention: the gold leaf will fall from the screens and the wood will return to its natural state. The work metaphorically shows his embrace of ever-changing things, a principle of Buddhism.

“Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens” is on display at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco through Jan. 11, 2011. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from. The museum is closed on Mondays. For more information, call (415) 581-3500 or visit www.asianart.org/index.html.

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