Most people outside of Japan demonstrate their wealth and success by living in ever-larger spaces and by accumulating more and more stuff to fill them. Contrast walls covered with paintings and every level surface cluttered with objects to the traditional Japanese ideal of an empty room in which artworks join furnishings just for a particular chapter in life’s drama — and are then put away again.
With the exception of decorated sliding doors already in situ, paintings in the form of hanging scrolls or folding screens were brought out of storage to briefly echo a mood or season. One feels there is something to be learned here.
Even a taste for grandeur could be satisfied temporarily by the magnificent painted screens that can be seen in “BIOMBO — Japan Heritage as Legend of Gold,” the current exhibition at the new Suntory Museum in Tokyo Midtown. The organizers have employed the Portuguese/Spanish word biombo (a transliteration of byobu: a folding screen, or wind-block) to underscore the historic importance of screen paintings as diplomatic gifts. (Although guessing the meaning of the rest of the title, “Japan Heritage as Legend of Gold,” requires some creative imagination).
To my knowledge, this is the first major show dedicated solely to screens since that of the Fenollosa Collection from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was displayed at a Takashimaya department store in 1991. The selection includes masterpieces from various traditional schools of painting, including some of the aforementioned gifts that have returned on loan from museums in Europe, America and South Korea.
Folding screens arrived in Japan from China via Korea during the 7th century and functioned until the modern period as folding walls to delineate space and thwart chilling drafts in unheated buildings. In keeping with a preference for paintings that could be easily stored, the folding screen provided an ideal, portable format for artists who liked to work on a much grander scale.
The concept of large-scale painting evolved so, that during the Muromachi Period (14th-16th centuries), we see pairs of six-panel screens, each roughly 3.5 meters wide by over 1.5 meters high, decorated with contiguous paintings. This format lends itself perfectly to scenes from nature, especially paintings of idealized landscapes such as the celebrated West Lake in China, or compositions of birds, flowers, trees and animals. At the same time, artists found inspiration in what they experienced daily, and we also see the appearance of genre paintings depicting such subjects as shrine horses, court scenes and ordinary but colorful street life.
Budget permitting, gold was often employed for decorative effect and to reflect light, no matter how dim the source — be it from the moon or a candle flame. Gold leaf was pasted on to provide backgrounds or clouds, while gold dust was applied to suggest a glowing mist or luminous atmosphere.
Apart from domestic roles, screens also served a ritual function at Imperial and shogunal courts, military and religious institutions, and in the various ceremonies for life’s rites of passage. Even today, plain gold screens often appear in the background of important events, as if to add gravitas to the promises of politicians or newlyweds.
The screen paintings displayed in this exhibition are organized to show their formation and development, their role in ceremony, those influenced by contact with the West, the profusion of styles since the 16th century, and those, that for one reason or another, left Japan.
Most of them are breathtakingly beautiful and I would be very happy to take home the Muromachi Period pair of landscapes with the sun and the moon from Kongoji Temple, or the Suntory’s 19th-century pair showing waves on gold by Kano Seisenin Osanobu.
But perhaps the most historically fascinating are the screens depicting Western subjects: Western kings, European cities, the Battle of Lepanto, and the arrival of Europeans at the ports of Kyushu, all dating from that brief late-16th- to early-17th-century period before Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world until the 1850s.
Despite the latest state-of-the-art museum lighting boasting all the UV-control that conservators require, these screens are still lighted from overhead in a way that didn’t exist when they were made. While their splendor is undiminished, it should be remembered that they were never, ever seen this way by their creators, nor painted with anything other than lateral light in mind, and so a little imagination will be needed to envisage them as they were intended.
These wonderful objects were made for another time, a traditional way of living that has all but perished, and as almost no one has any space for them anymore, good examples turn up in better antique shops. It is still possible to buy magnificent Edo Period screens for a few million yen — a fraction of what one would pay for mediocre paintings of the same period in Europe. The Biombo show provides an excellent opportunity to polish one’s eyes and connoisseurship.
“BIOMBO — Japan Heritage as Legend of Gold” runs till Oct. 21 at the Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo Midtown, 9-7-4 Gardenside, Akasaka, Minato-ku; open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (till 6 p.m. Sun. & Mon.); admission ¥1,300. For more information call (03) 3479-8600 or visit www.suntory.com
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