Screen Interpretation A New Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago Reveals the Purpose, the History and the Exquisite Beauty of Japanese Screens

By Asiyanbi, Heather | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), February 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Screen Interpretation A New Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago Reveals the Purpose, the History and the Exquisite Beauty of Japanese Screens


Asiyanbi, Heather, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Heather Asiyanbi Daily Herald Staff Writer

At first glance, they seem so fragile, as though they'd break apart or crumble to dust with a gentle touch.

But these exquisite Japanese screens must be fairly strong and durable - some of them have lasted nearly six centuries, and all of them have just survived a long trip from Tokyo to Chicago.

"Worlds Seen and Imagined: Japanese Screens from the Idemitsu Museum of Arts" is an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago that includes 57 scenes created during the "golden age" of Japanese painting, which lasted from the 15th to the mid-19th centuries.

It may not seem like a very ambitious display when compared to the recently departed Monet exhibit, which was the largest collection of the artist's work ever assembled, but James Wood, director and president of the art institute, disagrees with those who think that way.

"Near the end of his life, Monet painted with architecture in mind and Japanese screens were done the same way," he said.

What also makes this exhibit special is the fact that New York was supposed to be the only American city to show these screens. Wood admits he lobbied hard to get them for the art institute.

Beautiful and necessary, the screens were painted not only for their beauty but also to create intimate spaces within Japanese homes, which were built without interior walls to make them less dangerous during an earthquake.

Screens were also used on special occasions, such as Buddhist rites and state ceremonies.

Unfortunately, their very design (most are between 5 and 7 feet tall) makes it nearly impossible for a comprehensive exhibit, so the screens will be shown in two installments: the first opened Feb. 17, and the second will open March 26.

Bernd Jesse, assistant curator of Japanese art at the art institute, explained that the screens come from rather palatial surroundings, since commissioning the artists was a fairly expensive undertaking.

And instead of trying to re-create a Japanese home in which to display the screens, Japanese architect Tadao Ando designed an almost Spartan space with soft lighting in order to let the beauty of the screens speak for itself.

And speak it does. This first installment of Japanese folding screens, containing half of the 57 specimens, is breathtaking. The screens themselves are made of lightweight, wooden latticework frames covered with layers of paper with hinges made of leather or paper. Some screens are self-contained images, one per panel, but some are continuous panoramic views that can span entire eight-panel screens.

The most common Japanese screens were six-panels with measurements that reflect their use as architectural aides. (The width of two six-paneled screens equals a ken - the length of tatami, two woven-straw mats. Traditional Japanese homes were measured according to how many tatami they could hold. …

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