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Glow of Japanese Screens makes Art Museum a good weekend destination

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 3, 2010 - Sometimes, just crossing a lobby can be an education.

If you walk in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s main entrance, just past the tail end of the outdoor equestrian statue of old St.  Louis himself, veer towards the left into the large gallery filled with old-master portraits from the collection. There, near the door, among prime examples of classic European paintings, hangs a Portrait of a Florentine Nobleman by Francesco Salviati, from 1546–48.

An elegant young man looks out from the picture, not at us, but somewhere off to our left. Dressed in an elaborate black silk doublet with a white shirt underneath, he sits in front of a grandly knotted, acid green drapery and holds a kid glove with the long, tapered fingers of one impossibly graceful hand. Although idealized, he appears realistic enough that he might turn and speak to us from across the centuries; the rendering of the sky above him seems based on the observation of actual clouds, and the landscape behind him likewise recalls landscapes we might have seen, save for the presence of a river god and a lion. The whole constitutes a typical late Italian Renaissance picture — the model for Western art ever afterward — Mannerist, to be sure, but a naturalistic, highly finished painting that persuasively employs the convention that the plane of the picture is a window through which we look out onto the scene depicted.

Now walk across the museum’s grand central hall and into the galleries for special exhibitions.

Facing you there, a pair of Japanese six-panel folding screens bearing a Landscape of the Four Seasons by Sesson Shūkei dates to circa 1560, a mere dozen years after the Salviati. But what a difference there is in the Japanese artist’s conception of the world and how to represent it!

The images on the two screens form a single continuous scene, with misty mountainous landscapes at the far end of each screen bracketing a largely empty center that represents a body of water plied by a few boats. Instead of the impulse toward realism and the perception of the painted surface as convincingly contiguous with the surrounding world, Sesson gives us a self-contained universe that revels in our apprehension of its making.

The nearly monochromatic scene is limned in strokes and washes of black ink, augmented with some very pale areas of color. We can see almost every movement of the artist’s brush, and vast areas — the central lake or inlet, the snowy mountains on the far left, the clouds of mist that hover throughout — have been left as virtually blank paper. More like a large drawing than a painting as it was conceived in Europe at the time, Landscape of the Four Seasons might have been regarded as a preliminary sketch in the West, but in Japan it would have been seen not only as a perfectly finished masterpiece of painting, indebted to Chinese models, but also as a high achievement of decorative art, the zig-zag folds of the screens echoing their depiction of spatial recession as they graced a room.

Sesson’s screens comprise the oldest work and one of many highlights of Five Centuries of Japanese Screens: Masterpieces from the Saint Louis Art Museum and The Art Institute of Chicago, the current temporary exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The show is not exactly a blockbuster — it’s too quiet for that — but it did provide me with one of the most engrossing museum experiences I have had this year.

Closing on Jan. 3, the exhibit will only stick around a few more days, so if you have not seen it yet, it will well repay a New Year’s visit.

Local Treasure, Rarely Displayed

In a way, Five Centuries of Japanese Screens makes a perfect recession-era show, although it was in the works long before the current economic downturn. Including only screens from the permanent collections of the two Midwestern museums and seen solely at those two institutions, it involves no costly foreign loans or travel. Yet, the exhibition does not skimp on visual richness nor, apparently, on a solid historical overview of its subject, and it is to the credit of a long line of curators and donors of Asian art at both venues that a show both this comprehensive and beautiful could be assembled without recourse to any outside collections.

about the author

Joseph R. Wolin is a New York-based critic, curator and professor.
His work in St. Louis was underwritten by a group of individuals and institutions concerned with journalistic coverage of the visual arts in this region. Wolin's work here is a joint project of KETC-TV / Channel 9, St. Louis Public Radio | 90.7 KWMU and the St. Louis Beacon, and is being presented as part of the content of those media.

Notwithstanding the homegrown aspect of the exhibition, it is a project unlikely to ever be repeated. Screens function as supremely useful objects — good for stopping drafts, creating privacy or dividing a room — but the ones here, like most objects in our museums, clearly represent the fanciest versions, created by great artists for the rich and powerful, and intended to commemorate important occasions, make manifest status, wealth and taste, and serve as impressive backdrops for whomever was seated in front of them. Painted on fragile paper and silk, these screens were never meant for lengthy periods of display, and the survival of those in the show in such pristine condition attests to the fact that they have been greatly valued and stored away in the dark for most of their existence. Exhibits like this, then—with so many screens on view that we can compare and contrast them, and trace developments in the genre through centuries—mark rare occurrences.

I am by no means an expert in Japanese art; in fact, most of what I know about the screens (byōbu in Japanese) comes from this informative exhibit and its handsome catalog. But one of the show’s strengths is that it makes apparent the artistry of these objects even to a novice like me.

Sesson’s Landscape of the Four Seasons, for instance, draws our interest not only for how he wielded his brush, but for what he actually portrayed. Scraggly but resilient trees cling to craggy mountains; a waterfall flows over a rock and crashes down in prehensile splashes; pagoda-roofed buildings stand stately in the distance. People, each depicted economically with only a few, distinct strokes, do all kinds of things, giving us a vision of a distant land, 450 years ago. Figures bow to each other, lean on sticks, carry bags or bundles; they fish and sail; two men on horseback chase a third, running on foot with his arms outstretched in front of him. Wonderfully ethereal clouds of fog, modulated in delicate washes, contrast with the other elements, sharply drawn and defined.


Other artists continued the ink-painting technique and aesthetic epitomized by Sesson’s work for centuries. Kaihō Yūshō’s pair of screens titled Landscape from circa 1602 feature a composition strikingly similar to the earlier image. Pointy-roofed buildings sit on rocky bluffs before misty mountains, while a large, placid body of water inflected by a few boats occupies the center, where the left and right screens meet. Yūshō, however, has reduced Sesson’s plethora of charming detail to a bare minimum.

Only two small groupings of buildings appear, one on either screen, delineated by just a few strokes each. The few trees shown comprise nothing but dense masses of dark ink, almost scribbles. Rocks are similarly scarce, and people virtually absent; Yūshō represents a few on three tiny boats as nothing but jotted dabs, mere notations that nonetheless convey a sense of movement and action. Most of the picture — nearly 25 feet wide — remains empty, broad expanses of water and sky. A contemplative quietude prevails, enhanced by the lambent glow that suffuses the whole scene as a result of the thin washes of gold paint the artist brushed over large areas. The work, in spite of its venerability, feels incredibly contemporary.

Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers

A river runs through Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers from the late 17th or early 18th century by Yamaguchi Sekkei, another pair of screens that feature a traditional Chinese theme of landscape vignettes composed as a continuous vista. The gold washes in Sekkei’s work prove malleable, articulating alternately mist, water, ground or scallop-edged clouds. His angular brushwork describes a number of scenes with the incisive panache of a great New Yorker cartoon: a bustling village; men transporting bundles suspended from poles carried on their shoulders; others setting fishing nets or pulling cargo laden barges down the river, watched by two figures on a veranda, while a third sits cross-legged and reads what looks like a newspaper; even a stoop-shouldered old man with a topknot who stands and contemplates a roaring waterfall, setting an example for the viewer.

20th Century Seasons

The same artistic legacy lasted even into the 20th century, as evinced by another Landscape of the Four Seasons by Matsubayashi Keigetsu from 1932. Here, he essays the by-now familiar elements of fog-shrouded mountains, thatched cottages, figures, and a central body of water with fishing boats in an illustrational style, marked by the use of staccato stippling, that, according to the exhibition’s catalog, deliberately strove for a “plain and bland” effect (an aspiration so utterly foreign to Western tastes that reading it stopped me in my tracks for a moment). Unfortunately, Keigetsu succeeded all too well, making this pair of six-paneled screens one of the least compelling items in the show.

Golden Hues

If Five Centuries of Japanese Screens delivers a fine overview of the brush and ink school of painting, it gives us an even richer history of what came to be regarded as the quintessential style of decorating screens: painting in colors over a gold-leaf ground. These sumptuous partitions (kinbyōbu or “golden screens” in Japanese), made with the most expensive materials, literally dazzle when light reflects off their surfaces. They were, of course, the most highly prized screens; and we can imagine how, when deployed as backdrops for ceremonial occasions, the people framed by their splendor would assume the most regal, even hieratic, of appearances, much like the tempera saints in early Renaissance paintings, set off by their burnished gold grounds.

The golden screens also served as canvases on which painters could exercise their skills. Several 17th-century examples feature portraits of plants. Maize and Cockscombs, for instance, by an unknown artist from the middle part of the century, stands in the exhibition’s first room. Only a single six-panel screen of what was once a pair, it authoritatively shows the plants of the title against a glittering gold ground. Though somewhat stylized, the artist has depicted his subjects with crisp detail, as naturalistic as those in coeval European botanical illustrations, on which this image might be based.

The maize plants flower at their tops while ears of corn in various stages of maturity nestle among the unruly leaves below, their veins picked out in gold. To the left, the scarlet cockscombs stand upright in full bloom. The contrast between the two species provides not only an opportunity for the artist to impress with his masterful characterizations of either, but for us to consider the fact that maize had only recently been introduced to Japan by Europeans.

Cockscombs were native to Japan, but in their gardens the Japanese had just begun to grow maize plants like those portrayed here. Corn may have been brought there by the Manila Galleons, the Spanish ships that traded between the Far East, the Philippines, and Mexico, which also would have brought screens like this back to Mexico, where they inspired a vogue for Asian decorative objects and an entire genre of Spanish colonial art: Mexican-made screens or biombos in imitation of Japanese byōbu.

Maize and Cockscombs also demonstrates how the gold grounds of folding screens can complement the richness of the painted decoration. Here, the gallery’s lights shine down on the screen from above, creating zone of reflected golden light, most often at the top and bottom of the individual panels, with a darker zone in between, where the composition is most dense. The overall impression evokes a fulgent sky, perhaps at sunrise, behind the crops and flowers. We should keep in mind that these objects were made before the steady illumination of incandescent light; they would have been seen by natural light or the flicker of lamps, which would animate the golden surfaces with the play of changing light.

It is also good to remember that in Japan one sits on or close to the floor, meaning that the viewpoint of the users of these screens was usually quite low, explaining why much of their compositions’ painted detail coalesces in the lower portions of the panels. The museum compensates for this somewhat for the standing viewer by raising the screens on short platforms, but sitting in front of Maize and Cockscombs, with the plants rising above one’s head, must have conjured the experience of sitting in a verdant garden.

Southern Barbarians

Another screen that speaks directly to the interaction of East and West during the same period is not one of the most beautiful of the works on view, but it is nonetheless one of the most fascinating. The twelve panels of Southern Barbarians by an unknown artist also date to the mid-17th century, and picture the arrival of a boatload of Portuguese traders and missionaries in a Japanese port.

This pair represents a type of the golden screens in which the entire horizontal expanse shows episodes from a single narrative. Other examples in the exhibition include The Tale of Taishokan from 1640/80, a fabulous adventure story involving sea monsters, and a mid-19th-century screen with Scenes from the Tale of Genji, the famous Japanese saga.

In Southern Barbarians, we see the exoticism of the early encounter between civilizations from opposite sides of the world, but here we see the Westerners — ourselves, really — through the eyes of the Japanese. Unlike most of the screens, which read from right to left, as one reads Japanese writing, this one seems to go from left to right. On the far left, a large wooden ship that stretches across four panels crosses wonderfully rolling waves. It teems with figures, including some in crow’s nests on the masts, and carries items indicative of its dual objectives, the spread of both commerce and Christianity. While two figures on board exchange what seems to be a porcelain bowl — the Portuguese imported Chinese goods to Japan, among other things — a large cross crowns the ship’s prow and another is lashed to the anchor. On the beach, a number of Japanese calmly watch the ship’s arrival, while other foreign figures — Portuguese and their retainers — who are already there seem to prepare with more agitation.

On the right-hand screen, a person of some importance, perhaps the captain of the ship, walks toward some buildings. He wears a helmet and bright blue leggings, and a mustache under the big nose that the artist assigned to all of the Europeans. His servants, in ballooning harem pants, have hands, faces and feet colored gray, probably to denote the darker skin tones of South or Southeast Asian crew members from the Portuguese colonies in Goa, Ceylon or Malacca. One of them holds a parasol over the captain, another carries a folding chair, and one more leads a reluctant camel. More figures await them, including several in religious garb, a masked man on horseback, and two women in patterned kimonos in the lower right corner. Behind, some of the gray-skinned men bathe in a river, while golden clouds, nearly indistinguishable from the golden ground on which the figures walk, waft in and divide some of the episodic vignettes from others.

Southern Barbarians provides a storybook spectacle of strange foreigners arriving in a pleasant harbor after arduous travel on the high seas, and bringing outlandish goods, animals and people, to the tolerant bemusement of the cultured inhabitants there. As the title suggests, however, the Europeans are the exotic barbarians in the view of the Japanese, and themselves the refined society who receive them.

Willow Bridge

Willow Bridge and Waterwheel by Hasegawa Sōya, from circa 1650, another pair of screens with a composition that extends across all 12 panels, forms a single image. A gently curving bridge seen from overhead stretches gracefully across a placid pond. Willow trees, seen straight on, droop over the water. A waterwheel in the lower left corner of the left-hand screen balances the stylized clouds with an irregularly shaped half moon at the upper right of the right-hand screen. Diagonally applied gold leaf forms the planks of the bridge; small cut squares of gold leaf make up the misty clouds that hang across the scene, each ringed by a nimbus of confetti-like gold dust. The moon is silver leaf. Even the green leaves were painted with ground malachite pigment. The luxuriousness of these screens as objects recalls the jeweler’s art.

As the differing points of view of trees and bridge evince, the European device of Albertian perspective did not interest Sōya (if, indeed, the Japanese knew of it). Nonetheless, he rendered his image with perfect legibility and pictorial cohesion. More remarkably, however, the strikingly graphic strength of his composition forcefully reminds us why Japanese art, including screens like these, appealed so greatly to European artists like Whistler and Van Gogh in the latter part of the 19th century. (The influence of Japanese art on European and American artists is part of why it now looks so familiar to us.)

The long sweeping arc of Sōya’s bridge spans about 16 feet from lower right to upper left, making it nearly life-size. Vertical willow boughs provide counterpoint, and the whole gains a kind of effervescence from the frothy clouds scattered across the panels. The painter has simplified forms, subdued details, and created an overall rhythm, imparting an elegance that feels exceptionally modern and making these magnificent screens seem as if they might as easily have come from the era of Art Deco as from 350 years ago.

Jazz Age

A pair of spectacular screens that actually do date to the Jazz Age, the 1921 Blue Phoenix by Ōmura Kōyō, brings the tradition of screen painting up to the 20th century. Kōyō gold-leafed the back of the silk on which he painted, lending his image a soft, allover radiance, but that subtle glow pales in comparison to the riot of color and form before us. Trees, fronds, and vines in vivid greens nearly fill the panels, creating the impression of a lush jungle, punctuated by brilliant orange-red Royal Poinciana blossoms. Only partly open on the right-hand screen, the flowers vie for attention with a pair of peacock-like Great Argus birds perched in branches, the patterned wings of the male demurely folded, his long tail hanging down.

On the left-hand screen, against somewhat different foliage, the flowers have burst into full bloom and another male bird — or, perhaps, the same one, later in time — proudly displays his fabulous plumage, tail feathers curving up into the air, wings open in great fans. Clearly influenced by Western styles of representation — both painting and illustration would be my guess — Kōyō fills the surface with an almost overwhelming amount of visual information, well capturing the analogous surfeit of life in the Indonesian rainforest, from which he had recently returned.

Yet the changes in his subject from right (closed flowers, quiet birds) to left (open blossoms, active fowl) signals a development in time or episodic moments across this most Japanese of painting supports; it continues the longstanding interest in having the screens in a pair feature contrasting or progressive themes, like the landscapes that evoke the four seasons. In any event, Blue Phoenix constitutes a tour de force of the screen painter’s art and intimates that the 1920s in Japan may have roared just as loudly as they did elsewhere.

Modern Decline

If Five Centuries of Japanese Screens had concluded with this stellar work, bringing the centuries-old legacy into the modern era, I would consider it an estimable success, but it does not. One final room with four works — two from the late 1960s and two from 1990 — attempt to show the byōbu’s continuing relevance almost to the present moment. For me, that attempt fails.

Star Festival (1968), by Kayama Matazō, a six-panel screen, utilizes many of the decorative techniques and precious metals of traditional screen paintings, but mashes them up in a composition that appears indebted to American Abstract Expressionist art of the 1950s. A ragged silver edge between areas of different designs makes the screen look like nothing so much as a blown-up collage of torn wrapping paper.

Morita Shiryū covers the four panels of Dragon Knows Dragon (1969) with huge characters of gestural calligraphy that apparently spell out the title; he also conjures the spontaneous brushwork of large Abstract Expressionist canvases, which themselves had been influenced by Japanese ink painting. Executed in metallic gold on black and heavily varnished, Morita’s screen certainly means to recall Japanese lacquer ware, yet the effect is actually quite fussy and Dragon Knows Dragon might do best as a backdrop for a display in a fancy department store. 

Worst in show, Ōkura Jirō’s Mountain Lake Screen Tachi (1990), an assemblage of five four-panel screens, some owned by both the Chicago and St. Louis museums, seems a travesty of the golden screens on view earlier in the exhibition. Here, a small forest of rough wooden planks of varying shapes and sizes, held together with hardware-store hinges, have been drilled through with holes, like a Swiss cheese, and cursorily covered in squares of gold leaf, many of which have edges hanging loose and fluttering in the breeze; some bits have fallen off completely.

The catalog tells us that the artist intends for the slapdash appearance of his work to be reminiscent of the processes of nature, but that is a sentiment of almost shocking insipidity. The exhibit makes a big deal of this work — there’s even a video playing to explain how Ōkura made it — but that misplaced focus serves only to degrade the actual achievements of earlier artists who worked with gold and the folding-screen format.

Not only can Mountain Lake Screen Tachi not hold its own in the context of the impressive history of byōbu, but it likewise bears little relationship to other works of art contemporaneous with it from across the globe. At best, we might relegate it to the category of pretentious craft, but, even there, I doubt that it could add much to the ongoing discourse. Its prominence within the exhibit (not to mention its inclusion in the museums’ collections) leads me to worry that knowledgeable specialists in Asian art may not necessarily be astute curators of contemporary art.

It seems unfair to end on such a sour note, because in spite of the relatively minor disappointment of its final room, Five Centuries of Japanese Screens offers multiple pleasures. Close looking at the mostly gorgeous objects included allows us to imaginatively inhabit the minds of skilled artists working long, long ago in a place far, far away, who combined the richest of materials with impeccable craftsmanship. The exhibition does a poor job of convincing us that the high artistry of this traditional art form has endured to the present, but the first 360 years were glorious.