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11 Things to Know About Collecting Japanese Screens

Here are 11 things to know before embarking on your journey towards collecting Japanese screens, also known byōbu.
Last updated Jun 30, 2024

1. Appreciate the Art Form

Japanese screens, or byōbu, embody the fusion of art and utility, serving both as room dividers and as significant cultural artifacts. These screens are renowned for their beauty and craftsmanship, reflecting centuries of artistic evolution. There is considerable interest worldwide from museums and individuals for collecting Japanese screens.

2. Understand the History:

Originating in the 8th century, byōbu have been a staple in Japanese interior decor, initially used in the imperial court and gradually adopted by nobles and samurai. The art form has undergone various transformations, reflecting the artistic and cultural shifts across different historical periods.

3. Recognize Iconic Themes:

Themes on Japanese screens are varied, depicting everything from the natural beauty of Japan to narratives from classical literature. For example, scenes from “The Tale of Genji” are popular motifs, illustrating the opulent court life of the Heian period.

Butterflies (Kochō) Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) Momoyama period (1573–1615), late 16th–early 17th century Six-panel folding screen; ink, color, gold, and gold leaf on paper
Butterflies (Kochō) Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) Momoyama period (1573–1615), late 16th–early 17th century Six-panel folding screen; ink, color, gold, and gold leaf on paper

Screens Depicting The Tale of the Genji

Screens were commonly used to depict expansive scenes on large panels, making them ideal for both public and private displays. For example, the 16th-century “Genji Monogatari Folding Screens” illustrate episodes from the novel with vivid imagery and key moments, such as the “Battle of the Carriages” or Genji’s exile, using bright pigments and gold leaf for contrast and clarity. These screens, often commissioned by wealthy patrons, celebrated the cultural heritage of The Tale of Genji.

4. Learn About Styles and Schools:

Prominent schools like the Kano school, founded by Kano Masanobu in the 15th century, are celebrated for their influence on screen painting. The school’s bold, dynamic style and use of gold leaf became the hallmark of samurai and noble households.

5. Explore Materials and Techniques:

Traditional screens are made from multiple panels of paper or silk stretched over wooden frames, often embellished with gold or silver leaf. The use of precious materials not only adds visual appeal but also enhances the ambient light of a room, showcasing the detailed artwork.

6. Check Condition and Provenance:

A screen’s history can significantly influence its value. For instance, a 17th-century pair of six-panel screens by Hasegawa Tōhaku, a pioneer of the Momoyama period painting, sold for $880,000 at auction, thanks in part to its well-documented lineage and exceptional preservation. Building a good background on the key artists and artworks, rarity, and lots for sale at upcoming auctions, are essential in your journey of collecting Japanese screens.

Hasegawa Tohaku - Pine Trees (Shōrin-zu_byōbu)
Hasegawa Tohaku – Pine Trees (Shōrin-zu_byōbu)

The Art of Hasegawa Tōhaku

Hasegawa Tōhaku was a prominent Japanese painter and founder of the Hasegawa school of painting during the Azuchi-Momoyama period of the late 16th century. Renowned for his mastery in ink painting and the use of light and shadow, Tōhaku’s art is characterized by a profound simplicity and serenity. His most famous work, the Pine Trees screen (Shōrin-zu byōbu), exemplifies his skill in using ink gradation to evoke mist and depth, capturing the essence of a tranquil forest. Tōhaku’s screens not only reflect his innovative approach to traditional Japanese themes but also convey a deep appreciation of nature and a subtle expression of Zen ideals.

7. Appreciate Craftsmanship and Detail:

The intricacy of the artwork, such as that found in screens crafted by Maruyama Ōkyo, who is known for his detailed and realistic depictions of nature, demonstrates the artist’s mastery and can greatly affect the screen’s artistic value.

8. Consider the Size and Display:

The physical dimensions of a screen can impact its suitability for modern interiors. For example, a six-panel screen by Ogata Kōrin, depicting irises against a gold background, not only serves as a functional room divider but also as a stunning focal point, commanding prices upwards of $1 million.

Ogata Korin - Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges)
Ogata Korin – Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges)

Ogata Korin’s Irises at Yatasuhashi

This screen depicts the elegant, upright forms of irises contrasted against an angular bridge that cuts diagonally across the composition. This iconic image is inspired by an episode from “The Ise Stories” (Ise Monogatari), a classic Japanese literary work composed during the Heian period. The narrative tells the adventures of an unnamed protagonist, presumed to be Ariwara no Narihira, and includes a famous scene set in a wetland full of irises, symbolizing the path of the protagonist’s journeys and emotional reflections. Korin’s interpretation captures both the beauty of the natural scene and the poignant, underlying themes of the tales.

9. Note the Variations:

Different forms include the folding byōbu and the sliding fusuma, which have different uses and aesthetic impacts. Tawaraya Sōtatsu, another influential artist, was known for his fusuma paintings that transformed the aesthetics of interior spaces in Japanese architecture.

What are Fusuma?

Fusuma (襖) are traditional Japanese sliding panels used to divide rooms and conceal storage areas in houses and temples. These panels are typically made of wood and covered with paper or cloth, which can be beautifully decorated with paintings or calligraphy. Fusuma function both as practical elements of Japanese architecture and as canvases for artistic expression, contributing to the aesthetic and atmosphere of interior spaces.

10. Explore Modern and Contemporary Pieces:

Contemporary screens by artists like Yokoyama Taikan bring modern sensibilities to traditional themes, often blending classic techniques with innovative designs. Such pieces appeal to collectors looking for a modern twist on traditional art forms.

11. Connect with Experts and Collectors:

Engaging with a community of experts and enthusiasts can provide deeper insights and access to rare pieces. Auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s frequently feature Japanese screens, where collectors can view and purchase historically significant and artistically outstanding pieces.

Collecting Japanese screens is a journey into the heart of Japanese art and culture. Each screen, whether antique or contemporary, offers a unique story told through its artistry, making it a profound addition to any collection.

Featured image above of two six panel screens entitled Pine trees and cranes by Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958).

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interior-staircase-with-plants gallery wall
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Salman A

Salman A

Based in the vibrant city of Dubai, I thrive as a designer and filmmaker with a passion sparked in childhood by the thrilling adventures of UFO Robot Grendizer and Speed Racer. My journey took a deeper dive into the world of art through a profound fascination with Japanese culture, enriched by memorable times spent in Japan. Creativity pulses at the core of who I am. Connect with me for tailor-made design and film projects that bring your visions to life.


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