Folding screen from the lohara Seijudo workshop
Peter Ujlaki recommends byobu for utility and beauty at is so alluring about the Japanese folding screen, or byobu, that makes it the most sought-after piece of Japanese memorabilia? One need look no further than functionality and focus on a screen's unparalleled ability to partition a room and hide from view the tossed-in-the-corner de¬bris of everyday living. No more practical way has ever been devised, East or West, for instantly making a room not only presentable, but elegant¬ly suggestive of the best of the Orient. In addi¬tion, with a minimum of hardware, the smaller-sized screens at least, can be laid flat and mounted on a wall, like a giant framed picture. As for cost, those with an eye for accountancy have calculat¬ed that, despite the high price per piece, a byobu is still per square foot the most reasonable way to buy an old Japanese painting.
The Japanese themselves, never known for us¬ing any form of painting solely for aesthetic pur¬poses — just recall all the painted walls and sliding door panels — initially stressed only the function¬ality of folding screens. The very word byobu means `barrier against the winds' and, in addition to affording protection against cold drafts, screens. were moved into service as backdrops in religious and court ceremonies or room partitions- in large interiors. Single-panel screens constructed entirely of wood and supported on low wooden feet (tsuitate) were also used as obstacles in the entry¬way to confuse intruding demons.
It was the Chinese, of course, that taught these islands that demons can travel only in straight lines, and it was from China that the first folding screen came to Japan in the year 686, in the hands of a Korean envoy. The mainland had possessed screens since the third century. BC but the Japanese quickly started to make up for lost time and already by 756 Emperor Shomu was able to donate one htindred painted screens to Todaiji in Nara.
Screens throughout the Nara and Heian periods 8th to 12th centuries) were heavy, awkward copies of that first imported model: thick wooden frames covered in silk, linked together at the corners with silken or leather cords. Besides being only slightly more portable than a Japanese wall itself, this type of construction left a considerable amount of space between the painted areas on neighboring panels.
The Japanese got to work, slowly, refining the idea, and by the 14th century layers of strong paper were being stretched over a much lighter wooden frame. Moreover, a way had been devel¬oped to link the panels with overlapping and interlocking strips of paper, permitting a lighter, stronger screen that unfolded into a single, un¬broken surface with no intrusive borders. A rota¬tion of 360 degrees was now possible for each panel, a deceptively strong method of construc¬tion that, more or less unchanged, continues to he used in byobu workshops today.
As for subject matter, the inventory of Emper¬or Shomu's gift included a wide variety of both Buddhist and secular subjects, but it was the latter (generally called yarnato-e, or Japanese-style paint¬ing) — consisting of colorful landscapes of the four seasons, genre scenes depicting aristocrats and commoners at famous sites in and around Kyoto, and seasonal celebrations and ceremonies — that were the favored decoration for screens in the homes of aristocrats and at court throughout the first five centuries.
By the middle of the Kamakura period (1185¬133.3), renewed contacts with the mainland re¬sulted in yamato-e screens being supplanted by Ones painted in austere Sung Dynasty-style mon-ochrome ink. The Muromachi period (1333-1568) continued Chinese borrowings, adding literary themes, birds and flowers, and slightly more deco¬rative, Ming-inspired landscapes.
As with many of Japan's arts, it was the second half of the 16th century (the Momoyama period) that saw a golden age for screen painting — in this case literally as well as figuratively. To reflect the wealth and power of the military warlords (and to help brighten their dark castle interiors), screens sprinkled with gold dust or covered in wafer-thin gold leaf became prominent. Such screens were brightly-colored, the compositions were simpler, and the major artists — most famously the Kano school — broadened the subject matter to include tales from classical literature and genre scenes.
During the Edo period (1600-1868), the Kano painters, supported by the Tokugawa shoguns, remained conservative and continued to draw inspiration from China. The anonymous Tosa school workshop artisans continued the old yarn-ato-e tradition of scenes from everyday life while the new Rimpa school, commissioned by cultured merchants and aristocrats, specialized in extreme¬ly bold, simplified compositions with few motifs. It is the screens of this school that today strike us as boasting a modern aesthetic. Also, for a time, smaller six-fold screens with courtesan and kabu¬ki motifs in the ukiyo style were produced in large numbers for the middle class. But with the demise of wealthy patrons and large homes — where screens usually were displayed only at special times — new creative energy in the arts ceased express¬ing itself in this medium.
Thus, connoisseurs feel that the art of screen-painting has been in decline since the 18th cen¬tury, but that doesn't mean that products of the 19th and even the current century can not some¬times be rather beautiful. A tiny handful of work¬shops in Kyoto still turn out hand-painted screens.
Alas, good examples of this particular piece of Japanese heritage tend to be big, very expensive and hard to find — so many are already in museums and homes in the West. However, the third-generation Kyoto workshop, lohara Seijudo, specializing in the Tosa and Rimpa traditions, will be offering a large assortment of new and semi-antique byobu for direct sale at the Kobe Club on the weekend of March 8¬10. Because they come direct from the artisans, some¬thing very unusual in the world of screens, a major multi-panel byobu — some with very contemporary mountings — can be Y100,000 or less, about one-third the price of similar screens in stores.
- Exhibition of folding screens at the Kobe Club (078-, 241 -2588). March 8 toI0, 11:00 to 19:00 -
Folding screens (Byobu) are said to have been already used in the period of Heian as decorations of room at Court or in nobilities' life and to have played a large part in the prosperity of Yamato-e paint¬ings. Before long folding screens came into use at temples or warriors' residences. Especially from the period of Momoyama to Edo, they became more and more prosperous together with wall paintings often seen at castles. And tycoon or feudal lords became to patronize splendid gorgeous gilded screens, and they became by and by to be come into wide use from tradesmen of economical room to common people. Folding screens' paintings of that period were the unexampled polished designs in the world. And it was developed a colorful design world responded by everyone with ancient "miyabi" (elegance).
The ancestors of our Japanese were endowed such delicate sensibilities as to be impressed by muta¬bility of snow or flowers also even by the movement of the moon. And their superior senses of beauty were reflected in colors and figures, and they were expressed as beautiful patterns in folding screens. The ancestors put folding screens occasionally by their side, and they made them charm of life.
The paintings of folding screens are very varied; themes taken from ancient Sansui (landscape), Kacho-fugetsu (flowers, birds, wind and moon) and literatures of a time, or manners' paintings of the period, paintings of noted places or workmen.
Especially there are many cultural properties in Kyoto which used to be the capital of Japan for about one thousand years. And ancient families in Kyoto have certainly collections of folding screens handed down from generation to generation, and it is no change even now to exhibit them in a day of festival or wedding etc. Also the elegant screen's festival in which the traditional folding screens are exhibited in each house of the protégé of a tutelary deity for passers-by to show, has been still continued in the days of Gion-festival.
Folding screens are used regularly and popularly for a long time in spite of the remarkable transition of architecture of late years. Because a folding screen has the two functions, one a suitable accent in the simple space of Japanese architecture and the other original partition.
In Kyoto people has still now inherited the refined skill of mounting added the tradition of a picture in Japanese style of the Shijo-maruyama school, and they make the best use of this beauty and skill today. Folding screens which have a extended tradition over some hundreds years are now again reviving as decorative art and as suitable interior furnitures for modern house life to be in keeping with and to raise more the taste in life.