A Japanese landscape unfolds

The Japanese folding screen was an invention of architectural dimension. But it was free-standing and movable. It could be placed in different parts of a room.

To Japanese painters, screens offered the opportunity for large-scale paintings. And because of the breadth and height of such screen paintings, which stand on the same floor as people near them, they could include the viewer in ways that a framed picture hung on a wall does not.

Japanese "perspective" was not at all the same as Western perspective. There is no fixed viewpoint, no vanishing points. Instead of gazing into a receding distance, the eye is taken on a journey. It scans from bottom to top and from side to side. And at every point (in a landscape) the eye is confronted with trees, mountainsides, roads, streams, and figures all of the same scale and size, regardless of how "near" or "far away" they would appear to be under the rules of Western perspective.

The single screen shown here, composed of six panels, or folds, is a fine example of the powerful mix of storytelling, love of nature, and stylized sense of the decorative that is characteristic of much Japanese painting, going back to the 16th century. This painting belongs to the "High Edo" period (1688 to 1750), which is a high point in the history of the arts in Japan, then untouched by the West.

This screen portrays what would have been an immediately recognizable part of a classic fictional-poetic biography of the 9th-century courtly poet Ariwara no Narihira. The fiction was called "Tales of Ise."

Fukaye Roshu, to whom the painting is attributed, treated this subject more than once. He was a follower of the "Rimpa" or "decorative" school of Edo painting.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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