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Folding screens in Japan

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Kanō Yasunobu | Japan 1613–85 | Pair of six fold screens: Birds and flowers of the four seasons 17th century (Edo period) | Gold and colours on paper on six-fold wooden framed screens | 131.2 x 245.7cm (each screen) | Purchased 2008 with funds from the Henry and Amanda Bartlett Trust through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Screens were introduced to Japan from China, where they had been in use since at least the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). The first recorded mention of their arrival, according to Japanese sources, was in the eighth century, and regarded a gift to the court from Korea presented in 686. From this point on, screens were avidly adopted as an important format for painting. Indeed, they were embraced with such skill and enthusiasm that the painted folding screen became an art form today more associated with Japan than with China.

Folding screens were costly and desirable objects, found only in the wealthiest homes and institutions. As well as being pleasing to the eye, folding screens served a number of practical functions within the vast, open-plan audience or reception halls characteristic of Japanese architecture in the Momoyama (1573–1615) and Edo (1615–1868) periods. Screens could be used to block drafts – byobu, the Japanese term for folding screens, literally means ‘barrier’ or ‘protection’ (byo) from ‘wind’ (bu) – or to partition off small areas for privacy.

Light, portable and easily stored, screens were readily interchangeable; they could be selected according to the season or occasion, or installed to create an appropriate ambience or tone. For example, reception halls were important spaces for the enunciation of power and painted screens often served as a backdrop for a figure of authority seated before an assembled audience. As such, the screen performed a psychological role as much as a physical one; merged in this way, the audience would come to associate the authority figure with the message and ideals depicted on the screen.