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Hon’ami Kōetsu, Folding Screen mounted with poems

Hon'ami Kōetsu 本阿弥光悦, Folding Screen mounted with poems from the anthology, Shin kokinshu, c. 1624–37, Edo period, Japan, ink, color, and gold on paper, 168.2 x 357.7 cm and 168.2 x 377.2 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.195–196)

A conversation between Dr. Sonia Coman and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano jazz music) - [Lauren] We're looking at an amazing golden screen from 17th century Japan. This is a folding screen that's made of two parts composed of six panels each, and this screen is the collaboration between different artists, one of whom, Hon'ami Koetsu, is a famous artist from this time period in Japan. - [Sonia] As you look at the right-hand screen, you see golden clouds superimposed with poem cards, shikishi, as well as plants and grasses in the bottom section. The cloud that you see in the upper left corner of the right-hand screen continues onto the left-hand screen to visually unify the composition across the two screens. However, on the left-hand screen, instead of the clearing in the clouds, you see this reed or bamboo curtain that has golden tassels that fall down, guiding your gaze at these peonies that you see through the curtain. If you look a little closer, you see that the reed from the curtain is painted on top of the petals of the flowers to suggest that the curtain is between you and the flowers, situating you in an indoor space looking out onto this garden. The poem cards are pasted onto the screen, whose composition was by the hand of another artist, suggesting this very fruitful collaboration between the calligrapher and the painter. - [Lauren] So let's talk a bit about how a screen like this would have been placed and how it would have functioned in 17th century Japan. They would have been placed into a room to divide it, and also in some instances to provide light. We get a great sense of that here with the elaborate use of gold. Imagine light flickering off the surface, and it would've made a room brighter. - [Sonia] The themes were chosen also to mirror outdoor spaces and to bring them in in symbolic and culturally significant ways. The garden across these two screens is not a literal garden, because the flowers and the grasses are representative of different seasons. As your gaze travels across the screens, you're moving in time. - [Lauren] And if we look at the autumnal flowers, we can actually see that they're slightly raised, giving us yet another layer of dimensionality to this screen. - [Sonia] The flowers are depicted with this build-up of pigment, a technique called moriage, and this creates a literal relief on the paper of the screen. - [Lauren] I wanted to look more closely at some of these wonderful poem cards. Each one is different in terms of the poem that's written on each card. Koetsu has also treated the surface in different ways. - [Sonia] The poem cards tell several interesting stories. One of them relates to the early 13th century anthology from which the poems are sourced, the "Shin kokin wakashu," the "Anthology of Contemporaneous and Ancient Poems." Koetsu thought that the poems in this anthology were unsurpassed in quality. If you look across the two screens, see you will be able to count 36 of these poem cards. In Japan, there is a traditional list of 36 immortal poets who are considered invaluable. Often in Japanese culture, we see how symbols or significant numbers are transferred from one tradition to the other, from one medium to the other, and we can see how that happens here as well in adopting the 36 immortal poet number and applying it to the number of cards that are pasted on the screens. The visual effect of the gold and the painting is supplemented by the dynamic nature of the calligraphy. The cards not only supply this additional layer of poetic meaning, but they also add a very interesting layer of visual information, because the way in which the poems are written has a lot of rhythm. Koetsu developed an interesting style of calligraphy, cursive, highly creative, highly dynamic form of writing poetry, also one that scattered the different bits of verses across the page of the poem card so that your eye would go from place to place and avoid a certain monotony. In this form of scattered writing, known as chirashigaki, is one that is mirrored in the position of the poem cards on the screens. As you see, they are not all lined up, and there doesn't seem to be any apparent order. They move you across the screen, allowing you to follow them in different spots, emphasizing certain areas, for example, on top of those grasses where you almost can't see them. - [Lauren] I'm struck by the incredible diversity of materials here. We have not only the lavish use of gold, but we have all of these natural pigments as well as paper, as well as wood, and Japan has such an abundance of minerals and plants that these are all actually sourced locally. We have a lot of transformations that have occurred in Japan at this time. - [Sonia] Koetsu was instrumental in a revival of classical traditions, especially ones hearkening back to the golden age of the Heian period. He was interested in anthologies like the "Shin kokin wakashu," he was looking at models in classical Chinese poetry, painting, and calligraphy. For a long time in Japanese history, these artistic traditions of poetry and calligraphy and painting were the exclusive domain of the court. In Koetsu's time, Japan was in a different historical moment. We saw the rise of the shogunate. That shift in the seat of political power also entailed a shift in the diffusion of culture and artistic traditions from Kyoto to other centers, such as Edo. For Koetsu and his patrons, screens like this meant that they too could enjoy the aristocratic pursuits of Heian period Kyoto. (upbeat piano jazz music)