Saint Louis Art Museum

An unprecedented display of one of Japan’s most ancient art forms is coming to the Saint Louis Art Museum. Five Centuries of Japanese Screens: Masterpieces from the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago opens Sunday, Oct. 18. “This is the first major exhibition of folding screens that goes beyond the end of Japan’s classical period in the mid-1860s, all the way to the late 1990s, and includes works by living artists,” says Philip Hu, associate curator of Asian art at the museum.

    The earliest surviving Japanese folding screens, or ‘byobu,’ are from the eighth century, but the screen tradition was introduced to Japan from China and Korea a century earlier, according to Hu. “In the very beginning, the screens were most likely given as diplomatic gifts. Then the Japanese modified them for use as room dividers, but they also had aesthetic value as works of art,” he says. “It’s hard to walk away without seeing how innovative the Japanese were with design. Using the same basic proportions, they were very creative with their styles, subjects and stories.”

    Most classical screens were made of silk or paper, while some of the more contemporary ones can be found on ceramic, lacquer or machine warped wood, Hu explains. Mineral pigment is used for color, including red from cinnabar, green from malachite, blue from azurite, and yellow from ocher. Pine soot is most commonly used for ink monochrome pieces.

    Gold leaf or gilded screens indicated ownership by the upper class. “The highest-end screens were gilded, and were found in the Imperial Palace and in the homes of aristocrats, samurais and the military elite of Japan,” Hu says. “Buddhist temples and monasteries were also important locations for screens. In fact, some of the screens in the exhibition were originally in temples.” 

    Early screens often depicted human figures, inscriptions, and calligraphy. In addition to allowing artists to create sweeping visions, the large format served another purpose. “Writing was a very important component of early folding screens,” Hu points out. “And more people were able to see and read the characters because of the large format.” Themes range from commemoration of special events to literary figures. “Often we can speculate for whom and for what occasion the screen was made,” he says. “Those illustrating The Tale of Genji, for instance, were popularly given as bridal gifts due to the narrative’s romantic nature.”

    Five Centuries of Japanese Screens brings together 28 rarely seen pieces from the collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. “The collections are very complimentary: Chicago’s is comprised of pre-modern, classical period pieces, while St. Louis’ is more modern/contemporary,” Hu notes. “The two are a perfect mix, covering the entire 500-year period.”

    The oldest screen in the exhibition, Sesson Shukei’s Landscape of the Four Seasons, is a pair of six-panel screens circa 1560. “This type of landscape theme originated in China,” Hu says. “Traditional Chinese and Japanese writings go from right to left; so do the screens. If you look at this piece carefully, spring and summer are shown on the right, autumn and winter are on the left.”

    One of the most opulent screens on display is Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips by Tosa Mitsuoki. The pair of 17th century six-panel screens has gold and silver etchings on silk. “This was from the collection of a Japanese empress,” Hu says. “It’s such a lavish screen that it could only have been commissioned by someone of the highest caliber.”

    Five Centuries of Japanese Screens features an iPod tour, as well as an accompanying catalog with full-color images and essays for purchase in the Museum Shop. In addition, the museum is hosting exhibition-related programs, including a Japanese puppet show during ‘Family Sundays’ in November, and ‘Gallery Talks’ on ceramics and screens in November and December.

    The exhibition runs through Jan. 3, plenty of time to visit more than once. “It’s the kind of show that will reward you if you come back several times,” Hu says. “You just can’t waltz by. Pay attention to the details—the tiniest ones are so beautifully drawn.”