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Japanese Scrolls and Screens

Video: Scrolls & Screens - Transcript

Japan's plentiful rainfall, especially the monsoon storms of early summer, keeps the i sland country lush and green. It also supplies the water necessary for the cultivation of rice. Japanese dwellings are largely constructed of wood and are protected from the windblown rain and dampness by wide roofs with deep overhanging eaves. In order to provide a dry living space, the floors are elevated a few feet above the soggy ground. They are covered by thick, straw tatami mats, which provide a comfortable surface for sitting on the floor. They also are a standard of measure of interior spaces, from the humblest house to the largest palace.

Traditional interiors are spacious and open, with few solid walls, allowing cool, drying breezes to pass freely through the entire building. These large spaces, broken only by the pillars which help support the roof, also provide plenty of room for large gatherings of people. To create smaller, more intimate and private areas, the Japanese use a number of ingenious methods to divide the space.

One of the earliest and most versatile formats was the folding screen. Known in Japanese as byobu, literally "wind barrier", folding screens were imported from Korea as early as the 7th century. Constructed by pasting paper over a light wooden lattice, panels were connected by paper hinges. Depending on intended use, the number of panels varied widely. There were two, three, four, six, and even eight paneled screens. From extremely low to medium and tall, byobu were also created in a variety of heights. The most popular format seems to have consisted of six panels which, taken together, measure about five feet high and twelve feet long.

Tiger and DragonEarly screens consisted of individual panel paintings, framed by richly textured silk. Painters soon realized the artistic possibilities of extending their compositions over the entire surface, greatly increasing the decorative impact of the screen. Where space allowed, byobu were produced in pairs, allowing artists to mate complimentary subject matter, such as the Tiger and Dragon screens in the museum's collection.

The Interrupted ArtistHighly decorative folding screens brought art into daily life. They were also very functional. Light and portable, they were taken on picnics to block the wind. Inside they provided protection from chilly drafts. Arranged to create a small enclosure, they helped to provide a degree of privacy from the other inhabitants of the house. Or, used as a backdrop for formal occasions, they helped to create an impressive display of elegance and wealth.

Another method of partitioning interior spaces within traditional Japanese buildings was accomplished by installing sliding doors, called fusuma, between the interior pillars. Like byobu, fusuma were constructed by pasting layers of paper over a light wooden framework. Whereas byobu are freestanding, fusuma are slid along wooden tracks set into the floor and transom. Their size was thus dictated by the architecture. In order to accommodate larger gatherings, the fusuma could be pushed back to connect rooms, or removed altogether. Artists also exploited the large paper surface of fusuma for decorative paintings. Not only could their compositions extend onto the neighboring doors, they could continue around the entire room. The intended use of the rooms dictated the type of painting. Splendid golden screens with subjects drawn from Chinese mythology were the most formal and were used in rooms reserved for receiving guests. Subtler, evocative landscapes in pure ink were appropriate for more private quarters.

Whereas painted folding screens and sliding doors were both beautiful and functional, there was one area within Japanese homes and palaces that was developed for the specific purpose of displaying art. This area, known as the tokonoma, forms the focal point of a room. The tokonoma is an alcove where a prized object can be exhibited and enjoyed. This special area is distinguished from the rest of the room by its raised, highly polished or lacquered wooden base.

Ichikawa Danjuro V in the Shibaraku Courtesan Standing with Raised Left Hand
The most common object displayed in the tokonoma is a kakemono, or hanging scroll. Early hanging scrolls were imported from China for use in Buddhist ceremonies. By the 14th or 15th century, however, they were widely used among the aristocracy and tea masters to decorate the tokonoma. Unlike Western oil paintings, which consist of canvas stretched over a rigid framework and displayed for long periods of time, hanging scrolls are much more flexible. Paintings are usually rendered on fine silk or paper. Depending upon the style and subject, a mounter selects pieces of brocade to border the top and bottom of the painting. This is surrounded by plain or patterned silk and attached to a wooden dowel. This flexible format allows hanging scrolls to be rolled up for compact storage.

Hanging scrolls for the tokonoma are changed frequently, reflecting the owner's sensitivity to the season, occasion, and the tastes and artistic interests of his guests. Hanging scrolls, folding screens, sliding doors--these traditional formats, utilized by Japanese artists, contribute to the distinctive character of Japanese interiors.