The accessories that fanned the flames of screen painting


Given the relative dearth of fan-painting exhibitions, it seems a relatively minor art commensurate with its small-scale format. In reality, it was the most abundantly produced kind of painting in Japan for many centuries, giving birth, or at least standing as precursor, to the large-scale golden screen painting genre, Rakuchu Rakugai-zu (Famous Scenes in and out of the Capital, Kyoto), that fascinated the shogunate and nobility from the 16th century. As the exhibition “Fan Paintings from the Konoike Collection at the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art” makes clear, practically all major painters by the late Edo Period (1603-1868) were engaged in painting fans.

By the 7th century, the ogi (folding fan) had been invented in Japan, and by the 10th century they were so popular that laws were introduced to restrict their extravagant decoration. Part of the reason for such popularity was their portability and also their confluence with other Japanese art forms. Fans were miniature folding screens that could be produced from a sleeve and splayed to reveal a moment from a larger narrative. Also, like hanging scrolls, displayed in the alcove, they were accessories with an appropriate painted seasonal reference.

Rather than merely utilitarian objects restricted to use in the summer months, painted fans were revered aesthetic objects. Their usefulness also made them good diplomatic gifts, such as the 100 fans commissioned by the daimyo Ouchi Yoshitaka (1507-1551) from Kano Motonobu’s atelier for a mission to China.

Fan painting drew upon the tradition of depicting famous scenic spots, and by the late 15th century, iconographic precedents that characterized the Rakuchu Rakugai-zu genre, such as the golden clouds that provide visual transitions between well-known locations, could be discerned in all of them. In the later Muromachi Period (1392-1568), painted fans had become so popular that fan shops were being featured in Rakuchu Rakugai-zu genre works, often produced by the Kano school, de facto painters to the shogunate.

The depiction of such shops in large-scale paintings, which were destined to be owned by the wealthy and powerful, were also a way to advertise a school’s side business. The fan-painting trade became so lucrative that the Kano school even appealed to political powers in an attempt to curb competition and secure itself a monopoly.

The Konoike Collection, however, which focuses on the late Edo fan paintings that were collected by the 11th generation Konoike Zenemon Yukikata (1865-1931), foregrounds a historical period when attempts at monopoly were futile. In addition to the ubiquitous Kano and Tosa schools there emerged an array of new schools, such as the Hanabusa, Maruyama-Shijo, Ukiyo-e, and more individual styles, such as those of literati artists who vied for a share in the buoyant commercial market.

The Konoike Collection is presently divided between the repositories of the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo and the Konoike Limited Partnership Company in Osaka. The illustrious merchant family moved to Osaka in the 17th century and began in the sake business before becoming money lenders. Yukikata’s fondness for purchasing fans was enabled both by his familial background and his succession of directorships in companies that included those in banking and insurance.

While 300 or so fan paintings are exhibited, a mere fraction of the entire collection, of especial interest is the well-known Rimpa style and the less coveted works by Osaka-based artists. The Rimpa works are primarily illustrative of the seasons, but two fans by Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828), “God of Thunder” and “God of Wind” (undated), show his work as largely the reproduction of the composition and characteristic style of his precursor, Ogata Korin (1658-1716), with little in the way of stylistic concession to the reduced and curved fan format.

The fans by Osaka artists mostly follow suit, but rather than following stylistic allegiances, as witnessed in works primarily by the Kano school, they evidence a stylistic eclecticism incorporating seasonal references, the bijinga genre (pictures of beautiful women) and further Chinese-inspired references such as the literati motifs in “Plum Trees” (undated) by Ueda Kofu (1760-1832). The subject here is an early bloomer in adverse conditions, flowering in late winter. It was subsequently related to gentlemanly Confucian ideals.

If fan painting still seems not to attain the preeminence of conventional painting, the exhibition provides further visual evidence of the influence the former exerted on the latter. Some fan paintings were removed from their stick mountings and pasted onto picture mountings and sometimes, as the absence of creases indicates, they were never mounted but appreciated foremost as paintings, such as Yoshida Genchin’s “Sceneries of the Twelve Months” (undated). Fan painting, then, was both a source and an object of emulation for late Edo painting.

“Fan Paintings From Konoike Collection” at Osaka Municipal Museum Of Art runs till May 30; admission ¥1,200; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon.; for more information, visit