A Tale of Magnificence and Modesty

Mono no aware.
Mono no aware. // Annelisa Leinbach

Japanese folding screens, or byobu, are some of the most storied and traditional pieces of Japanese art. Used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to enclose and define private spaces in the interiors of Japanese homes, these screens served both functional and decorative purposes. Most of the screens currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery are from the early seventeenth century, the Edo period of Japanese art.

The current exhibit is one in a three-part series called “The Grandeur of Japanese Screens.” The show, called “Tales and Poems,” open from now until March 23, is centered on both Japanese storytelling and poetry.

“Tales and Poems” is split into two halves, with one side focusing primarily on two Japanese fables: “The Tale of Genji” and “The Tale of Heike.” The flat ink and color depictions of the characters, both men and women, who would have been intimately familiar to their Japanese audience, spring to life against a sand-colored background. Their stories appear as separate episodes, each floating in isolation, but connected by themes like filial piety and unrequited love. It seems that, walking past these screens, one would have felt that he or she was peering into rooms within rooms, giving the illusion of multiple layers of space.

The introduction to the exhibit reveals the collection’s central motto: mono no aware, loosely translated as a sensitivity to the ephemeral things in life. It suggests a nostalgia for the impermanence of life, a sense complemented by the small snapshots of the every day depicted on each screen, such as familial, military and travel scenes.

The materials in the Japanese screens reflect both opulence and modesty. During the Edo period, gold leaf indicated a luxurious lifestyle while also serving a functional purpose: to reflect light into the ill-lit Japanese homes. In these screens, the leaf is used to create cloud shapes, defining the boundaries of the various scenes. The clouds’ opacity and reflective quality is striking next to the understated coloring of the rest of the screen.

The depictions on the screens themselves blur the distinction between man and nature. Sprawling trees overlap with rooftops, and it is often difficult to tell where the clouds end and the ground begins. In Kano Mitsunoba’s “Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety,” two episodes detail a man confronting nature: on opposite sides of the screen, there is a menacing tiger and a quaking elephant, both in conflict with humans.

The other side of the exhibit finds its inspiration not in folk tales, but in poetry. These screens are more cohesive in color and pattern, not separated into distinct scenes like the others. The most colorful screens in the exhibit are two paired screens called “Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maple with Poem Slips,” predominantly colored coral, jade and gold. The viewer is afforded the vantage point of a treetop, and gazes down at the vivid blossoms along the tree’s branches. Tied to each branch is a short  poem, reflective of Japanese tradition.

The least colorful screen, “Waka Byobu” by Konoe Nobutada, is also the most elegant. A waka byobu, or poetry screen, is composed simply of black ink brushstrokes on a dun-colored background. The black brush strokes float through the space, interlacing curves with loops and lines, evoking a feeling of eternity, a direct contrast to the mono no aware theme defining the rest of the exhibit. This screen stands out among the others by virtue of its simplicity — the viewer can almost sense the artist’s presence from the rawness of the brush strokes. Whereas the other works display various, at times distracting, competing elements, “Waka Byobu” allows one to appreciate the singular beauty of the characters.

The myriad elements displayed throughout the show — an abundance of characters and conversations — are at times overwhelming, but ultimately make sense. Indeed, recalling that these screens formed the walls of Japanese homes, it follows that many of the artists sought to convey various forms of entertainment all in a single work. The tension between the competing Japanese values of discipline and extravagance holds ”Tales and Poems” together; despite each screen’s unique features, all of them enliven and beautify the space they occupy, while still refraining from ostentation.

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