Paintings on folding screens present an interesting challenge to the Japanese painter. While most paintings in this and other cultures tend to be on a flat, single plane, the surface of a folding screen is like a series of mountain peaks that advance and recede from the viewer. Therefore, the composition must be carefully laid out to take full advantage of this unique format. Kano Koi’s “Tiger and Bamboo” and Oka Bunto’s “Clearing after Summer Shower” are excellent examples of paintings that meld seamlessly with the screens on which they are painted.
In “Tiger and Bamboo,” the viewer’s eye is drawn into the painting by a misty grove of bamboo stalks. The strong diagonal form of the tiger’s body leads the viewer up and across this six-paneled screen. The tiger’s unearthly gaze and pointing tail suggest that a missing screen, most likely depicting a dragon[i], would have sat to the right of it, exchanging terrifying glances at one another. In this painting, the artist carefully arranged the composition of the curvilinear tiger with its head at a “peak” and its rear end in a “valley” of the screen to suggest recession in space as well as to indicate motion. The form of the tiger appears to creep across the screen, as its body meanders back and forth over alternating folds that parallel its depicted motion. The bamboo too fades away to lighter washes of ink as it recedes into the first “valley” of the screen. “Clearing after Summer Shower,” also makes use of its “peaks” and “valleys” to suggest the recession and advancement of space. A woman in the foreground of the left-hand screen is indeed placed on the seam of one of these “peaks” to emphasize her position in the depicted scene. Similarly, on the left-hand screen, a distant building near a few chickens is placed in a “valley,” as is the farthest back point of the interior of the genkan (a traditional Japanese entry or foyer) where a monk peers out into the breaking sunlight. Like “Tiger and Bamboo,” the placement of elements in these two screens helps define space and lead the viewer through the scene. Additionally, the placement of images on these “peaks” emphasizes their importance in the composition, such as the face of the tiger or the sacred horse[ii] of the Shinto shrine.
While the folding screen format provides fantastic opportunities for interplay of depicted space and actual space, its large size gives the artist a great deal of freedom to use a variety of brushwork, color, line, pattern, and materials. While “Tiger and Bamboo” makes use only of black ink in varying shades and vast expanses of undefined space, “Clearing after Summer Shower” makes use of ink, pigments, and gold leaf while it fills nearly the entire surface with detailed drawing. The brushwork in “Tiger and Bamboo” utilizes very wet strokes ranging from black to the lightest shades of gray in the bamboo as well as quick, delicate, dry strokes for the tiger’s fur. The artist used the “boneless”[iii] technique of painting/drawing for the body of the tiger, suggesting its form through repetitive, thin strokes rather than by outline. Similarly, the brushwork in “Clearing after Summer Shower” ranges from washes of ink and pigment to finely detailed dry-brush strokes. While it too makes use of the “boneless” technique for some of the leaves, the fur of the monkey, and other details, most of the figures, architecture, and other surroundings are outlined in ink or pigment and then filled in with color. Although the screen format emphasizes depth of space and movement in “Tiger and Bamboo,” the artist does little to relate the imagery to the overall rectangular form of the screen. Instead, he chooses to surround the tiger with washes of ink that allow the viewer to create the surrounding environment in his own imagination. “Clearing after Summer Shower,” on the other hand, carefully relates the scene to its screen frame by creating a definite boundary with trees, foliage, and roof lines at the top and tree trunks, geta (traditional Japanese wooden shoes), and a lone chick a the bottom. Both artists have created a highly successful combination of formal elements, brushwork and composition in these screens.
However, the combination of these elements has vastly different effects on the viewer. The near life size scale and distorted facial features of the tiger in “Tiger and Bamboo” creates a frightening image of a wild beast stalking through a mist shrouded bamboo thicket. While sitting near this screen, the serpentine form of the tiger looms above the viewer looking as though it could pounce at any moment. “Clearing after Summer Shower” gives off a clearly different feeling. In this distinctly Japanese painting, a moment is captured as the first rays of sunlight pour onto gold-gilded leaves, a curious chick straying away from its parents, and various figures at the shrine complex. The overall feeling is one of quiet composure, relief now that the rains have departed and serenity. The figures are animated, but somewhat static as if frozen in time. The leaves overhead are weighed down by rainwater and people are just beginning to venture out from their shelters. If viewed from somewhat far away, the diminutive figures appear life size and the viewer feels like he is part of the scene, as if it could be happening right outside his window. The somewhat sketchy quality of the drawing suggests that it was, in fact, meant to be viewed from afar. However, the amount of detail in certain elements such as an overturned, conical hat and the exquisitely realistic depiction of the horse also make this screen satisfying when viewed from a close distance.
The folding screen format of these two painting is deftly interlaced with the composition, brushwork and other formal elements by these two artists. While “Tiger and Bamboo” could have worked well on a fan or perhaps in an album, it would lose some of its terrifying fierceness and sense of motion that are provided by the large, mountainous surface of the folding screen. Similarly, “Clearing after Summer Showers” contained so much information that it might have worked well as a hand scroll, allowing the viewer to experience the appearance of the sun as they rolled through it, but something of its power to surround and engulf the viewer in the scene would be lost. Overall, both paintings work exceptionally well in this functional and beautiful format.
[i] This information was recorded on the label shown with the painting at the Seattle Asian Art Museum 8/3/2003.
[ii] This information was recorded on the label shown with the painting at the Seattle Asian Art Museum 8/3/2003.
[iii] Kim, Eun-Boo. University of Washington. Seattle Asian Art Museum. 8 Mar. 2003.