Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Artistry unfolds: Embracing the traditions of antique byōbu

Artistry UnfoldsEmbracing the traditions of antique byōbuArchitect Yoshihiro Takishita resides in the ancient capital of Kamakura, a short distance from Tokyo. In the old minka farmhouse he dismantled, moved from the countryside and re-assembled here as his home, he maintains a collection of more than 200 of the large folding screens known as byōbu. Alternating their display according to the season or the mood of the day, Takishita treats byōbu — which have all but lost their role as a furnishing in modern Japanese houses — as elements of everyday interior decor. At the Takishita residence, you can savor firsthand the relaxing ambience created by these exquisite partitionsThe Takishita house is a thatch-roofed rural structure built in the mid-Edo Period (1603-1868), which Takishita dismantled, moved from Fukui Prefecture and reassembled in Kamakura.

Statement piece: Among the quintessential motifs of traditional Japanese paintings are combinations of auspicious symbols such as the pine, bamboo and plum, or the crane and tortoise, as well as the juxtaposition of white sand and green pines. Here a medium six-panel folding screen from the Edo Period (1603-1868) featuring bamboo, pine trees and cranes casually divides a large room into living and dining spaces.
Statement piece: Among the quintessential motifs of traditional Japanese paintings are combinations of auspicious symbols such as the pine, bamboo and plum, or the crane and tortoise, as well as the juxtaposition of white sand and green pines. Here a medium six-panel folding screen from the Edo Period (1603-1868) featuring bamboo, pine trees and cranes casually divides a large room into living and dining spaces.

Visitors to the residence are greeted by room upon room of golden byōbu that sparkle amid the spartan surroundings of the traditional Japanese farmhouse. First to catch the eye is the contrast between the sturdy matte-black beams and pillars of the house and the screens covered in delicate gold leaf. After growing accustomed to the sublime atmosphere, one soon becomes intrigued by the actual pictures on the screens. The large cranes cavorting in a pine forest and the vigorous renderings of bamboo on the panels in the living room are particularly striking. Together with the crisscrossing beams and pillars, the screens unify the rooms of the dimly lit house into a single integrated space.

Ushering us inside, Takishita comments, “Old farmhouses are of solid construction, designed to be robust, and tend to have few light sources, but a vibrantly colored screen illuminates any room.”

Many byōbu feature designs of dynamic composition and, because even those of standard size measure over 170 centimeters in height, a screen has the capacity to totally transform its environment. The gold leaf covering the panels is particularly effective at reflecting light in a subtle fashion that is never harsh on the eye. A single candle is all that’s needed to bathe the room in a soft glow, creating a mellow, restful luminance not possible with electricity.

Gold-covered byōbu change appearance over the course of a single day. In daylight, the images painted thereon acquire a different flavor according to the angle and intensity of light as the sun moves across the sky. At night, the pictures may appear flat under artificial lighting, but in the gentle quiver of candlelight, painted flowers and animals are thrown into vivid, nearly three-dimensional relief.

Golden glow: The vibrant green bamboo against a gold-leaf background on this six-panel screen from the Taisho Era (1912-26) transforms the dark interior of an old Japanese house into a bright, even sylvan space. The use of bamboo as a sole motif is rare in byōbu paintings.
Golden glow: The vibrant green bamboo against a gold-leaf background on this six-panel screen from the Taisho Era (1912-26) transforms the dark interior of an old Japanese house into a bright, even sylvan space. The use of bamboo as a sole motif is rare in byōbu paintings.

Byōbu are not only works of art, but also lightweight, easily transported articles of furniture. They may be positioned wherever and however one likes. The screen can be fully unfolded for display flush against a wall, like a painting, or the panels can be turned at a slight angle so that the screen stands alone. Most byōbu fold up into a thickness of no more than 10 centimeters. They are marvelous furnishings that can be swapped around to suit the season, or purely at the owner’s whim. A screen that was in the living room yesterday might appear today in the den.

Takishita adds, “What attracts me is the idea that byōbu extend beyond the confines of art to serve as a constant feature of daily life.”

This is the first installment in a four-part series on architect Yoshihiro Takishita’s antique byōbu collection.

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