Japanese folding screens: historical notes

Nara period

The first testimonies about the use of the folding screens (Byōbu) in Japan begin in the first Nara period (645-794) in which they were used in Buddhists temples in association with cult statues. At the end of the 8th century, the use of screens was no longer a prerogative of religious places, but it became normal, together with Fusuma ("Sliding Doors"), also for aristocratic homes. Traditional Japanese aristocratic houses, as well as the middle class ones, were characterized by very spacious environments and minimal furniture; for this reason, folding screens were used as a barrier for air currents and as moving walls; in fact, thanks to their structural characteristics, these objects allowed for the modularization of domestic environments and the creation of rooms within rooms. Regarding the painting, at first the themes were simple and painted on single wood panel; over time, represented scenes were joined and painted on multiple panels. The large surfaces of folding screens were ideal for large-sized paintings and chosen by artists for these purpose.

Heian period

In the aristocratic residential complexes of the Heian period (794-1185), characterized by large rooms, the screens were widely used in groups of four, eight and up to twelve elements; the principal themes were typical of the "Yamato-e" style and they concerned the representation of the four seasons (Shiki-e), famous places (Meisho-e), traditions and genres, commemorative portraits, tales, and biographical scenes (Monogatari-e).

The middle-age

From medieval period on, houses changed, the internal environments were divided using painted sliding doors (Fusuma) and till the beginning of the 15th century on, the custom of using folding screens in pairs began to spread; as a consequence, compositions in which a single scene is represented on two different screens were developed, so a continuous narration was told over both elements of a pair.

Kamakura, Momoyama and Edo periods

If the Kamakura period (1185-1333) is characterized by the prevalence of a monochromatic style, the Momoyama (1573-1615) and Edo (1615-1868) periods were characterized by a preference for a rich polychromy and extensive use of golden backgrounds. In the paintings of this period, the influence of the Kanō school, which melts Yamato-e's colors with the use of gold-leaf (Kinpaku) and the dynamic expression of the Chinese school, plays a central role. For this reason, in the following centuries, the use of gold-leaf and silver-leaf (in stripes or fragments) to cover the surfaces of the folding screens became commonplace.

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