By: Jenna Curry
Without documentation of such a popular pastime as the ancient Japanese hunting sport of inuoumono, which literally means “dog chasing,” its history would be as lost as the pursuit itself. Developed during the 12th century and reaching the height of its popularity in the 17th, inuoumono tested a samurai’s archery and riding skills. Contestants would mount their horses, with bows and padded arrows in hand, and compete to earn points by targeting dogs on their sides. However, the samurai would lose points if they hit the dog’s head or legs. The sport was usually performed in front of a large crowd of spectators—and some have visually recorded the event in meticulous detail on Japan’s largest traditional format: the folding screen.
Japanese folding screens, or byobu, usually come in pairs of two, four or six panels each, stretching up to 24 feet in length when unfolded. Today, only about a dozen sets of the inuoumono scene are known to exist, and most date to the 17th century. “It was a highly popular event; compare it to today’s football games,” says Erik Thomsen, whose New York gallery is offering the six-panel left side of the Dog Chasing screen. (The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, has the right half in its collection.) The left screen, which had been missing for many years, “is a fascinating study of the society at the time,” Thomsen says, noting that more than 350 spectators can be counted on this screen alone. “It shows people of all strata and ages of society sitting together. You can learn a lot about what they were eating, what they did for entertainment and how they dressed.”
As with the Japanese hand scroll, images on screens were made to be “read” from right to left, with a continuous design from one screen to its pair. In the Dog Chasingscreens, for example, the Ashmolean’s right half depicts the preparation for the event, and Thomsen’s focuses on the event actually taking place. Another popular example is the Namban screens, which would show a Japanese seaport on the right screen and docked Portuguese trade ships on the left. “There would be priests, military people and ordinary merchant traders with bundles of goods,” says Emily Sano, who was director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco from 1995–2008. “Many (genre) scenes developed from somebody actually observing and then recording them.”
Because screens are generally light in weight—made of paper or silk, mounted on a wood trellis—they could easily be moved and were sometimes only brought out to honor special guests or for particular occasions. During Japanese weddings, for example, there would be several pairs of six-panel screen paintings with auspicious images on them. “Cranes, which mate for life, and certain plants are symbolic of strength and fidelity,” says Helga Fleishman, owner of Imari Gallery in Sausalito, Calif., “and (the images) would be expressed in a Japanese screen painting that could be placed behind the bride and groom.” Screens were also used to honor the dead at funerals and to celebrate births, enthronement ceremonies and festivals. One of the great 16th-century rulers of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is said to have lined the streets of Kyoto with 200 pairs of finely decorated screens during a festival in order to display his wealth and taste for art, Fleishman says.
Japan’s Edo period (1603–1867) developed into a time of peace following several years of civil war, and the rise of a wealthy merchant class meant that rulers were no longer the only citizens who could afford screens in their homes. The traditional Japanese house was modular in construction, with rooms designed to hold a certain number of padded rice-straw floor mats known as tatami, which were 3 by 6 feet—the space needed for each person to sleep. Sliding screens, or fusuma, rested permanently in grooves, acting as doors to separate the rooms. Folding screens, on the other hand, could be placed anywhere in the room and were used to break up the space’s square or rectangular structure or to create privacy. One pair of Thomsen’s screens, illustrating Murasaki Shikibu’s novel Tale of Genji, offers a peek into a Japanese home. In one section of the property sits a lady-in-waiting, with two screens separating her from the rest of the room as she applies her makeup.
A few changes in painting techniques have occurred since the folding screen was introduced around the eighth century, but the screen’s format has remained consistent. In the 13th century Zen monks concentrated heavily on ink landscapes, which led to bird-and-flower imagery known as kachoga. By the 16th century, several art schools—Kano, Hasegawa, Tosa—began churning out screen paintings at a rapid rate, and because these were done by workshops, most were unsigned. Many artists used minerals and oils to depict Korean and Chinese images of flowers or animals in addition to Japanese motifs, and, according to Sano, in later centuries some artists affixed decorative textiles—rather than paint—to their screens.
While 700 years under Japanese imperial power allowed the country’s artists to develop very sophisticated techniques, their works didn’t start arriving in Europe until Commodore Perry opened Japan’s ports in 1854. Soon after, screens, scrolls and prints were shown in Paris at international exhibitions. Japanese artistic influence began to penetrate Western nations, and contributed to a shift away from the classical model of a fixed viewpoint. “It totally revolutionized Western painting, which at that time, was still following a more traditional sort of photographic realism, using only ‘suitable’ stances of a subject,” Fleishman explains. European artists were soon using multiple viewpoints, by which images could be suspended against a blank canvas and human figures were no longer limited to particular poses.
Oliver Impey, author of The Art of the Japanese Folding Screen, explains that screens were usually painted in such a way that the viewer’s perspective is always looking downward at the scene, which makes it difficult to show depth realistically. “If there is no fixed viewpoint … the sun can never be present, or it would throw shadows impossible to ignore,” Impey writes. That’s not to say Japanese screens aren’t luminous, however. Many works were painted directly on gold leaf and then mounted on the panels. For an even more luxurious aesthetic—screens that, for instance, would have been commissioned by the daimyo lords and housed in castles—the gold leaf would first be laid over silk and then mounted on the screen. “Screens were made originally to lighten up the dark interiors of castles in Japan,” says Thomsen. “The gold leaf reflects light—just a few candles under the screen would transform a room.”
From a global perspective, the prices for Japanese byobu are relatively reasonable. Sano explains in the past 20 years screens have occasionally sold for more than $1 million; however, that is the exceptional and not the average price. “The number of available screens has gone down, particularly the screens from high classic periods, which would be the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries,” she says. “Since these are scarcer, their prices can easily be up to a million or more.”
Collectors can find beautiful examples of Japanese screens for less than $10,000, and the middle range is about $25,000–50,000, according to Jim Marinaccio, owner of Naga Antiques in New York. However, the rarer screens might carry a price tag in the mid-six figures, Thomsen says.
Ingrid Edelman, an interior designer who has been working with and collecting Japanese screens for five years, admires these works for their versatile appeal. Screens can intermix in a room with other genres of art or furniture from different countries and periods. “Screens don’t have to jump at you,” she ays. “They can blend in beautifully with everything.”
Erik Thomsen Asian Art, New York
Honeychurch Antiques, Seattle
Imari Gallery, Sausalito, Calif.
Judith Dowling Asian Art, Boston
Koichi Yanagi Oriental Fine Arts, New York
Leighton Longhi Inc. Oriental Fine Arts, New York
Mika Gallery, New York
Naga Antiques, New York
Sebastian Izzard Asian Art, New York