Collecting guide: 9 things to know about Japanese screens

Japanese screens (byōbu) are exquisitely beautiful emblems of wealth and power. Matthew McKelway, Professor of Japanese Art History at Columbia University, offers an expert overview


‘What’s interesting in the development of screen paintings,’ says Matthew McKelway, Takeo and Itsuko Atsumi Professor of Japanese Art History at Columbia University, ‘is that we see a really broad variation of themes early on. Some of the earliest literary accounts seem to describe native landscapes — rounded green hills, cherry blossoms, maple leaves and seasonal flowers — but by the late medieval period we have examples that include human figures and narratives.’

As screens became increasingly varied in subject matter and style, members of the merchant class became keen collectors. Many beautiful examples are held in Buddhist temples, some commissioned by the temples and others donated by patrons. Today, gilded screens are still produced and used on special occasions such as award ceremonies and weddings.

When do screens date from?

Among the earliest screen paintings in East Asia are examples in lacquer on wood from Six Dynasties China (220-589 AD). The earliest complete extant example in Japan, explains Professor McKelway, is from the Tōji temple in Kyoto, built in 796 AD, depicting a 'Chinese recluse in a landscape with brilliant green pigments for the mountains'.

Anonymous (18th Century) Scenes from The Tale of Genji. Six-panel screen. Ink, colour, gold and gold leaf on paper, 37½ x 104¾ in (95.2 x 266.1 cm). Estimate: $7,000-12,000. Offered in Edo to Post War: 500 Years of Japanese Art and Design, 12 November to 19 November online

What were they used for?

Screens were used as diplomatic gifts. ‘From the late medieval period onward, they were sent in considerable numbers to China and to Korea,’ says McKelway. The subject of the screen paintings could often be interpreted as a message to the recipient: 17th-century inventories describe images of Japanese warriors on screens sent to Korea — which is interesting considering Japan invaded its neighbour twice in the 16th century.

Japanese screens also played an important part in the sacred setting of Shinto and Buddhist temples. ‘The concept of shōgon is a décor used in the temple to heighten and intensify the atmosphere for rituals,’ the professor explains. ‘The term encompasses the whole ensemble, from painted images and incredibly intricate silk borders on paintings to beautiful gilded incense burners and the like.’

Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), Pine Trees and Cranes. Pair of six-panel screens. Ink, colour, gold and gold leaf on paper. 67 x 151⅛ in (170.2 x 383.9 cm.) each (2). Sold for $267,750 on 20 March 2013 at Christie’s New York

They were also used at funerals and for the births of very high-ranking members of the aristocracy. Those serving the latter purpose, says McKelway, tend to be ‘completely white or white with images of cranes or egrets painted on them.’

Did screens contain popular themes?

Screens often depicted images from the Tale of Genji, the classic work of Japanese literature written in the early years of the 11th century. Others, such as those given as a dowry for a young wife, might contain an underlying message, such as direction on how to behave at court.

Who were the leading screen painters?

Although many of the screens are unsigned, there are some famous names that stand out for their innovation and skill. ‘Hasegawa Tōhaku — to whom this pair of screens of the Uji River is attributed — was attempting to do very different things with composition and materials to his competitors in the Kano school, for example,’ says McKelway.

Attributed to Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610), Willows and Uji River. Pair of six-panel screens. Ink, colour, gold, silver and gold leaf on paper. 62¾ x 139½ in (159.4 x 354.3 cm) each. Sold for $605,000 on 22 April 2015 at Christie’s New York

Around the 17th and 18th centuries, the artist’s hand began to be prized as much as the subject or material and, just as in the West, the individual's work was often preferred to that of the studio.

Further important names from this period include Maruyama Ōkyo, Nagasawa Rosetsu, Soga Shōhaku and Kishi Ganku. Yosa Buson, who was equally renowned as a haiku poet, is known to have established a lottery system in order to raise funds for the finest materials, such as silk satin. 

What can we tell from signatures and seals?

Signatures and seals began to appear on the screens in around the 16th century. ‘An older, established painter who led a big atelier producing for a younger patron might enter his name in the lower corners of a pair of screens,’ Professor McKelway notes. ‘If an artist were painting a screen for the shogun, however, he might not want to be so bold as to put his name on it.’ The seals, meanwhile, more commonly appear to indicate studio production.

How did production evolve over time?

There was a marked difference in materials from commission to commission. In the 16th century, for example, we see a growing preference for extensive application of metal foils, particularly gold.

Changes in Japan, such as national unification in the late 16th century, led to an advancement of technique. ‘The late Momoyama period is considered by art historians to be the period of major compositional innovation,’ says McKelway. ‘By the end of the 16th century, greater political stability contributed to urban development and increasing competition among painting studios.’

From the late 17th century, the breadth of patronage for works of art widened considerably as cities like Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya and Edo flourished, says the professor. The new consumerism was conspicuously displayed at the annual Gion festival in Kyoto, when screens and other treasures were taken out and put on show. This was unusual within Japanese culture, with its emphasis on discretion.

How did Japanese screens influence Western art?

‘The first known Japanese folding screen to have been sent to the West was part of a Japanese diplomatic mission to Spain, Portugal and eventually to Rome in the 1580s,’ explains McKelway. Due to their delicacy and rarity these gifts were not widely dispersed in the same way as, say, traditional fans or Chinese porcelain.

As they began to be acquired by museums and major collections in the 19th century, Japanese screens appeared in the work of artists such as Whistler and Manet.

Mori Kansai (1814-1894), Rabbits, 1881. Two-panel screen. Ink, colour and gold leaf on paper. 65¼ x 72¼ in (165.7 x 183.2 cm). Sold for $11,875 on 18 September 2013 at Christie’s New York

Are screens difficult to maintain?

Like any work of art, painted screens require a great deal of care. As a rule, they should not be put up on walls because the hinges will strain, causing damage to the framework and tears on the painting surface.

Temperature and humidity are also important considerations. ‘Screens have to be kept in conditions similar to those in their place of origin,’ advises McKelway.

What should a new collector look out for?

Although the professor advises that one should always follow one's own taste, factors to consider include rarity, the quality of the painting and materials, the composition or theme and the screen's condition.

‘The appearance of an artist’s name might be significant, but because so many works were not signed it's important to focus on the power of the imagery and the command of the medium,’ McKelway says. ‘My sense is that screen paintings are still a real bargain, especially in comparison to some of the household names in Western art.’

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