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Battle of the Carriages
Edo period (1615-1868), mid-17th century

Edo period (1615-1868), first quarter of 17th century

Rice Cultivation in the Four Seasons
Attributed to Kano Motonobu (1476-1559)
Muromachi period (1392-1573), 16th century

Tosa Mitsuoki
Cherry Trees
Edo period (1615-1868), late 1650s-1660s

Cherry-Blossom and Maple Viewing
Edo period (1615-1868), mid-17th century

Cherry Blossom Viewing at Yoshino and Itsukushima
Edo period (1615-1868), first half of 17th century

Horse Racing at Kamo Shrine and Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine
Edo period (1615-1868), 1660s-1670s

Tiered Box (jbako) with Design of Moon and Autumn Grasses
Edo period (1615-1868), 17th century

Writing Box (suzuri-bako) with Design of Uji
Edo period (1615-1868), 17th century
Art from the East
by Fred Stern

"Japanese Screens from New York Collections: at Asia Society," Jan. 13-June 27, 2004, at the Asian Society and Museum, 725 Park Avenue (near 70th Street) 10021

The Japanese call their lavishly decorated screens "Byobu." Wind protectors.

Now 11 room-sized screens, mostly double six-paneled, are on view at Asia Society.

Screens served as room dividers, establishing privacy. Their colors set a mood, and in monochromatic execution -- some were made in black ink only -- they were suited for more serious setting. On occasion they were used outdoors, or during cherry blossom viewing, to show off a particularly beautiful tree. Contemporary screens are still used in these manners.

While not an art form unique to Japan (the Chinese did it first), the Japanese have made it their own. In Japanese history the screens go back to the time of Nihongi, the classic Japanese chronicles, when a screen was presented to the emperor by Korean envoys from the kingdom of Silla (686 A.D.). They were also imported from China around this time. Japanese production of screens goes back to the Muromachi period (1392-1573).

The screens are freestanding, adjustable and of course portable. Single or twin panels are sometimes made, but usually a set of screens consists of two arrangements of six panels each. Odd numbers of panels (except for single-panel construction) usually indicate that some panels are missing. The panels are secured by large butterfly wings, metal devices that hold the screens together. The wings are masked by black lacquer.

Screen construction was costly, partly because a veritable army of craftsmen and artists were employed: carpenters, paper makers, metal workers, textile craftsmen and of course painters. Made of wood, usually white pine, the screens were first crafted by carpenters. Then the design or paintings were carefully paper-lined. In some cases, silk was used. Gold leaf was frequently applied as well. For collectors fortunate enough to own these antique screens, curators suggest a thorough examination of condition periodically, with repairs made when necessary.

For generations screens were made exclusively for the aristocracy and the warrior classes. During the early Edo period in the 16th and 17th century, with its greater urbanization and prosperity, screens became more common.

The present compliment of screens, some more than 300 years old, will be rotated, because of their light sensitivity. A second selection will be in place from April 6th until June 27th.

There are several themes to the pictorial representations of the first set of panels. A favorite is the theme of the four seasons. A pair of six-panel screens (mid-17th Century) from the Mary and James Burke Foundation, portrays the popular seasonal pastime of Japanese gentry, "Cherry Blossom and Maple Viewing." Here carriages arrive, with ladies carrying their writing boxes to compose florid poems, while men on a hill organize a drinking party. Other people wander through the glades. As in most Japanese screens, landscapes take up the lion's share of space, and people are given minuscule space.

Considering the importance of rice as a staple element of Japanese cuisine and culture, it is not surprising to see another pair of six panels in which all aspects of this commodity are presented in exquisite detail, from planting to storing the finished crop. The panels are from another New York collection, that of John C. Weber, and date to the mid-16th century.

The warrior tradition -- that of the samurai -- was still quite popular when the two sets of screens Battles of Ichinotani and Yashima were made. There is no evidence of bloodshed in the battle scenes, just the jousting of heavily armed men and their horses. The scenes are executed on ink, color and gold leaf on paper. Another single six-panel screen, Ama-no-Hashidate, depicts pilgrims on a sandbar and a temple, in a gold leaf paper construction. A group of men and women are having a picnic, a bit removed, from the temple scene, enjoying a day's outing. Interestingly, the cloud formation is almost identical with the shape of the sandbar.

The most prestigious screen in the second rotation is the Asia Society's Rockefeller double-six panel The Four Seasons. Produced in the mid-16th century, the pleasures of the four seasons are presented with subjects engaged in the activities typical for each season. In the first panel the eye travels to a group of men approaching a Chinese-style pavilion for a festive activity. It is summer and most of the figures are fishing. Food and wine are enjoyed in panels dedicated to autumn, and a snow panorama serves to represent winter.

The screen Cherry Blossom Viewing at Yoshino and Itsukushima, from the fabulous Burke collection, is a later screen (first half of the 17th century). In rich colors and gold, it celebrates two localities, Yoshino south of Nara and Itsukushima near Hiroshima. Arriving by boat, masses of viewers are assembled in these twin six panels, to indulge in one of Japan's favorite pastimes, the viewing of cherry blossoms. Banks of mist and clouds and a profusion of pink petals make this a favorite screen among connoisseurs.

Scenes from two Japanese classics, The Tale of Genji and the Tales of Ise highlight two other Burke collection screens. Seventeen episodes of the Ise tales are interspersed with poems from this sequence in a moving evocation of natural beauty and lament for the briefness of life. The Genji screens illustrate episodes from the love life of Prince Genji and illumine the wealth of the imperial courts.

Pines and Horses on a Shore presents a group of wild unmanned horses roaming a pine woods, while people in fishing boats approach the gold-leafed shore. While no location is indicated, experts believe that it is Akashi where Genji was exiled in one of the tale's episodes. Horses, distant buildings, salt huts and the deserted atmosphere highlight the setting.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.