Many people have a good basic idea that Japanese screens are paper-and-wood panels, used as room dividers, usually decorated. But they may discover delightful surprises about them upon seeing the Asian Art Museum’s new show, “Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens.”
The big, colorful exhibit of folding screens from the 1500s up to recent times dazzles with colors and fascinating stories told in paintings. There’s a wide variety of examples, too — some glittering, others displaying utmost simplicity.
Coming from the Art Institute of Chicago and the St. Louis Art Museum, and locally organized by Melissa Rinne, “Golden Clouds” also features 17th-century classics, such as “The Tale of Genji,” and pieces from the Japanese equivalent of the Flapper era.
As the case with Chinese and Japanese scrolls, these screens often tell long, complex stories.
One 17th-century screen on view — six panels in ink and gold on paper — depicts the meeting of Portuguese explorers (called, unkindly, “Southern Barbarians”) and the local population.
Reizei Tamechika’s 19th-century “Twelve Poetic Immortals and Their Poems” shows famous poets with fragments of their writings. The clean, sparse appearance of the screen is contrasted by some flowery works of dense, swirling colors.
The history of screens, originating in China, goes back a millennium. The exhibit clearly documents how 13th-century
Japanese ships visiting China and Korea carried the conveniently light and folding screens as presents. They also were used in profusion during the ancient galleon trade, and later given as gifts from Japan to popes and kings.
This show also relates to the museum’s second-floor exhibit, which marks the 150th anniversary of the first Japanese ambassadors arriving in San Francisco, on their way to Washington. Among the diplomatic gifts the envoys carried were screens presented to President James Buchanan.
The earliest work in the show is a pair of ink-painted landscape screens by Sesson Shukei (circa 1490–1577). Works from the golden age of the Japanese screen during the Momoyama (1573–1615) and Edo (1615–1868) periods also are on view.
Screens from the 20th century show the influence of Western-inspired annual juried art exhibitions and a break with convention.
Examples from this period include the colorful pair of screens “Blue Phoenix” by Omura Koyo (1891–1983) and “Star Festival” by Kayama Matazo (1927–2004).
In addition to the artworks, “Golden Clouds” also offers introductory information on composition, materials, formats and subjects of traditional folding screens. Self-guided thematic tours for visitors at various levels of expertise and interest are available as well.
IF YOU GO
Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; exhibit closes Jan. 16
Tickets: $7 to $12
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org