Japanese art expert discusses byobu

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

This Tuesday, an expert in Japanese art and culture explored the significance of byobu — decorative Japanese folding screens.

Hiroyuki Shimatani, the vice executive director of the Tokyo National Museum, gave a lecture entitled “Japanese Culture and the Appreciation of Byobu” in the Jeffery H. Loria Center for the History of Art to an audience of approximately 50 students, art experts and other members of the Yale community. The discussion focused on the history, relevance and artistic varieties of byobu and was conducted in Japanese with an English interpretation.

Shimatani discussed byobu in their historical context, noting the specific aspects of Japanese culture — the importance of Buddhism, the court nobles’ pursuit of refinement and the Chinese influence — that gave rise to the unique style of Japanese calligraphy and ultimately byobu in their various forms.

Byobu are constructed by stretching paper or silk to fit a large, rectangular wooden frame, Shimatani explained. Leather cords connect through holes in these frames, allowing artists to link panels together. He added that byobu can vary widely in size, depending on how many panels the artist uses, and when displayed, they are folded so that each panel is at a different angle.

The word byobu in Japanese means “blocking wind,” which is what the screens were originally used for, Shimatani explained. They were also used to divide and decorate rooms but later became luxurious decorative objects for the Japanese emperor and his court, he added.

Shimatani said that byobu vary widely in the content they display — some byobu have only calligraphy, he said, while others include images as well. He described a few examples, some of which are currently on display in the YUAG. One example depicts a scene from “The Tale of Genji,” a famous work of literature by Japanese noblewoman Lady Murasaki, with a few lines of poetry written in calligraphy above the image. Shimatani explained that the placement of the calligraphy on the byobu is extremely important, adding that the calligraphers had to do their work after the image had already been painted on the screen, giving them only one chance to place the lines in the desired spots.

Shimatani spoke in Japanese while Ashton Lazarus GRD ’14 interpreted. Lazarus explained that he had translated Shimatani’s speech in advance, but occasionally had to translate new points that Shimatani added on the spot.

Sadako Ohki, the Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art for the Yale University Art Gallery, introduced Shimatani and explained that the lecture was given in conjunction with the YUAG’s current exhibit, “Byobu: The Grandeur of Japanese Screens,” which displays a variety of folding screens and highlights their importance and complexity. The exhibit is in three parts: “Tables and Poems in Byobu,” “Brush and Ink in Byobu,” and “Nature and Celebration in Byobu,” with the exhibition’s first part on display until March 23.

Ingrid Yeung, a fifth-year graduate student in History of Art, said she enjoyed the talk, noting that she was glad to hear such an authoritative calligraphy expert describe his views on some of the work in the YUAG’s collection.

Shimatani is a contributor on a new book titled “Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan from the Tokyo National Museum.”

 

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