Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Japanese Screens

We recently attended an exhibit of Japanese screens that was jointly presented by the St. Louis Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. There is something so ethereal and delicate about these screens, which were meant to be both utilitarian and works of fine art. The fragile paper, the subtle colors, the brush calligraphy that freezes words as if they were birds hanging on air -- it evokes a peaceful feeling in me that I can't quite name or define.

I don't know much about Japanese screens, but I'm eager to learn more. The image below, a detail from a six-panel screen called Pheasant and Pine by Kano Koi, adorns the cover of the catalog, which is available at both museums. We bought it because it not only has all of the screens in the exhibit, but seems thorough in its discussion of this art form.

On the surface, my two favorite works in the show are quite different from one another. The first is by Tosa Mitsuoki (Japanese, 1617-1691) and is called Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maple with Poem Slips. The poems appear to be painted on little strips of paper that seem to flutter in the breeze. This picture, from the Art Institute, hardly does it justice. But if you go to their website, there is a better copy, one that you can zoom in on to see details. Both trees are simply gorgeous.

This screen has another image on the back, which was not visible in the display. I wish it had been reflected in a mirror or something, since it is a grove of bamboo, one of my favorite plants.

My second favorite work was a twentieth-century take on the centuries-old screen tradition. These two screens are part of 1990 work called Mountain Lake Screen Tachi by Okura Jiro.
The original work spanned more than 120 feet on 16 screens, creating a wall or mountain effect, or possibly a golden city. The gold leaf is applied on rough-hewn walnut boards, sometimes quite loosely, so that pieces of it sparkle and blow in the air. It's really quite lovely and impressive, both for its size and beauty, and for showing that this ancient art still lives and continues to grow.

I found this picture of the screens in their outdoor setting, but even this photo does not capture the impressive size of the screens, which seem to tower over you like golden mountains.

The Mountain Lake website says, "The focus of Okura’s workshops developed out of his own deep respect for natural materials, especially wood. This respect is based on an understanding of the relationship between nature as an environment of material substance with physical location, and as a concept of pure space. For Okura, substance and space acquire a sense of plenitude when the self grasps this relationship, which wood (or any other natural material) can symbolize if treated properly. Okura’s ideas, which are expressed by his treatment of wood, are manifested in Eastern belief systems through ritual practices that allow for chance and indeterminacy in the processing of materials."

The exhibit also made note of my architectural hero, Frank Lloyd Wright, crediting him with shaping "Americans’ visions of the screen format." The show had a large-scale photograph of his bedroom in his home and studio, Taliesin, circa 1909, with a Japanese screen embedded in the wall. This room no longer exists in this form, having been destroyed in one of the two fires that consumed much of Taliesin earlier in the century. So, it was fun and surprising to come across this image in the exhibit.

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