Japanese Folding Screens
Updated: Apr 21
The Chinese invented folding screens, with evidence of their existance dating back to 200BC. As they became increasingly popular, they spread to East Asia and most importantly Japan. It is here that we see the folding screen take on a new form. The purpose of the screen shifts to become a useful object; used as a room divider, a back drop and to partition off storage areas. Many of the screens depicted non-religious images, predominantly birds, trees and seasonal changes.
By the 8th Century, structural improvement became prevalent and screens began to be tied together at the top and bottom with leather or silken cords. Each panel was also surrounded by a silk border.
This was also the beginning of an important era in Japan, the Heian Period (794 to 1185). It is considered a time when Chinese influences were in decline and national culture was strengthening. The Imperial Court was at its height during this time and art, poetry and literature were of great importance.
Eventually by the 14th Century, panels were being joined with paper in a manner that is still used today. The paper hinges were pasted from the front of one panel to the back of the next in a seamless design. Individual silk borders on each panel also began to be extended the length of several panels joined together, allowing for larger, uninterrupted imagery on folding screens.
By the 16th Century the Japanese had surpassed their teachers both in artistic design and technical mastery. Japanese folding screens were known for their lightness, their layers of paper composition and their flexible hinges. Screens from this period (Monoyama Period) are also famously known for their gold brilliance, where sometimes the entire surface is covered in sheets of gold leaf.
The gold leaf reflected light and gave warmth to the room in which they were featured, often in castles and mansions which began to replace traditional temple architecture. During this lavish period many significant historical pieces were commissioned by rulers, leaving a legacy of beautiful folding Japanese screens.
Reference: Collecting Japanese Antiques - Alistair Seton, 2004
1. Senzui Byobu (Landscape with Figures) – Heian Period, 11th Century
Colour on silk – 6 Panel Screen
Location: Kyoto National Museum
2. Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons – Late 16th Century
Ink on Paper – 6 Panel Screen Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
3. Anthology of Japanese and Chinese Poems with Underpainting of Arrowroot Vines – Early 17th Century 26 Poem Cards, Ink, Colour, Gold and Silber Paper – 6 Panel Screen Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York