Landscape with Pavilion Screens by Yuan Jiang and Wang Yun
Today, let's talk about a pair of screen paintings from China. Take a look at the photo below. These are very large and luxurious screens, don't you think?
These screen paintings are made on gold paper with black ink and brilliant colors! They show scenes of soaring mountains and a rushing waterfall pouring into a large lake. In a gorge in the mountains stands a magnificent villa within which we see tiny figures.
These paintings were made in 1720, in the Kangxi Period of the Qing Dynasty. They were painted by not one, but two artists! The artists names were Yuan Jiang and Wang Yun and they lived in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province in China. Because each of these two screens can folded into eight panels, they are called "a pair of ight-fold screens." This is a typical format for screen paintings. These are very large screens: the paintings themselves are 246 cm (8 ft. 4 in.) tall and 490 cm (16 ft 1 in.) wide, but the screens are set on carved animal feet, so they actually stand over three meters high! The screens onto which these paintings are fixed were made a little later in time than the paintings, but they seem to be in the same style as the original frames.
The word for screen in Japanese is byobu. These same characters are read as bingfeng in Chinese. The word actually means "wind screen," but by no means were byobu used only to protect people inside from the wind; screens decorated with paintings and calligraphy were enjoyed as works of art! When screens weren't in use, they could be folded up and put away, making them a convenient and portable, interior furnishing.
In Japan, byobu screens are still used today for various purposes. Have you ever seen a gold screen placed behind the guests of honor at some celebratory event? These are the same kind of screens that were originally imported into Japan from China many years ago!
The word bingfeng has been used in China for over 2100 years! The word appears in written documents from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), but there is evidence that screens were in use even earlier than that! In the beginning, screens were made of only one standing panel, but over time, folding screens with two, four, six, eight or more panels evolved! A book called New Anecdotes of Gossip (Shishuo Xinyu) from the 5th Century (the Song Period of China's Northern and Southern Dynasties) tells of a man who is full of flattery for others, does everything for his own benefit and is "as crooked as a folding screen." This story proves that folding screens were already common in China by the 5th Century. Later, folding screens were given a special name (weibing, "enclosing screen") to distinguish them from single-panel standing screens.
In the 9th Century, an art historian named Zhang Yanyuan wrote of six-fold and twelve-fold screen paintings from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in his book Record of Famous Paintings in Successive Dynasties (Lidai Minghua Ji). The Feathers and Standing Girl Screens in the Shosoin Treasury in Nara, which were based on Tang styles but made in Japan, and the recently excavated wall murals from a Tang Dynasty tomb in China prove that in the Tang Dynasty, each panel of a folding screen had a border around the edge. The panels were connected with cords, so each panel had to have a border! Also, unlike the continuous scenery in the screens above, each Tang Dynasty screen panel had a independent scene.
When the format of folding screens came from China into Japan, however, the Japanese devised a kind of hinge made of strong paper, which made borders on each panel unnecessary. The removal of these borders allowed folding screens, which had formerly been divided into separate frames, to become one large, uninterrupted surface, giving the artist new and exceptional potential for expression on a grand scale!
From Chinese huazhonghua, or "paintings within paintings," we can see that borders were used on Chinese screen paintings until the Yuan Dynasty, in the 14th Century. By the Ming Dynasty (1368 - c. 1644), the borders had disappeared all together. This change was due to the influence of screen paintings exported to China from Japan!
Both Japanese and Chinese records document that in the 15th and 16th Centuries (during the Muromachi Period), Japan gave many gold screen paintings, with themes such as "birds and flowers," to Ming China. The bold composition of these screens with their brilliant colors on gold backgrounds must surely have dazzled the Chinese of the day!
In the late Ming Dynasty, gold paper became a very popular painting material in China. This too came about due to the influence of screens and fans imported into China from Japan.
So why did someone like Yuan Jiang, who is best known for reviving the magnificent landscape paintings of the Northern Song Dynasty, paint screens in this style? Some people say that the bold, clear style comes from the indirect influence of Western painting at the end of the Ming Dynasty. I have the feeling, however, that with their paper hinges, lack of borders and colors on a gold background, Yuan Jiang painted these screens after the Japanese screens brought into China during the Ming Dynasty!
Text by Minoru Nishigami, Department of Archives
English Translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives