Japanese screen depicts ancient festival

Hie-Sanno Festival (detail), Japanese, Momoyama period, 1590s
Hie-Sanno Festival (detail), Japanese, Momoyama period, 1590s Photo by Katherine Cheng.

Visitors to the Yale University Art Gallery on Tuesday witnessed the loading of portable shrines onto boats — upon a Momoyama period Japanese screen painting.

Matthew McKelway, professor of Japanese art at Columbia University, gave a presentation at the gallery about the 16th-century Japanese screen painting from the collection of Rosemarie and Leighton Longhi ’67. The screen, on public view for the first time at Tuesday’s event, is one of the earliest depictions of the ancient Sanno Festival — a religious festival honoring Shinto gods — and is unique in structure: The work is composed of eight panels (as opposed to the usual six) and features enough gold-leaf to rival Byzantine art.

McKelway began his talk by analyzing the images painted on the screen of cartoon-like men and women loading portable replica shrines onto boats to be paraded down a river stream. The images illustrate the Sanno Festival, which McKelway explained is “the major activity” at the Hie Shrine in Tokyo.

“It’s a bit more complicated than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” McKelway quipped, adding that the festival is a day-in-day-out process that takes place over a period six weeks.

McKelway emphasized that the six-week process is illustrated on one unified picture plane on the screne, defying the tradition of representing time sequentially.

Valerie Zimmer, a graduate student of Asian art history at City University of New York who came to New Haven to see the screen, said she liked that the screen reflects multiple events that did not necessarily happen at the same time but are shown together in order to illustrate a composite of the whole event. Zimmer said this disregard for the spatial and temporal rules of reality appealed to her.

“Asian art strives to go beyond replicating surface reality and reflects the artist’s interpretation of reality,” she said.

McKelway also offered an interesting insight about the artist’s intention in portraying reality, suggesting that the artist took measures that both enhanced the naturalistic quality of the scene and added a personifying element of energy and emotion. He directed the audience’s attention to the gold sprinkle applied around the figures, which, he said “adds a certain amount of texture to the ground and also further animates the screen.”

Aside from these musings about the artistry of the screen painting, McKelway’s presentation also covered the intricate details of the Sanno festival shown on the work.

Harry Sakamaki, the president of the Japan Society of Fairfield County, said he was pleasantly surprised by how much new information he learned at the talk.

“I am Japanese, and I did not even know those details of the Sanno Festival,” Sakamaki said. He and his family, who traveled from Greenwich, Conn., to hear the presentation, said they appreciated how detailed McKelway’s explanations of Japanese tradition and custom were.

The Sanno Festival Screen Painting is currently on display on the second floor of the gallery.

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