Pheasants under Cherry and Willow Trees

Japan, Kyoto Prefecture, Nishihonganji; Edo period, first half of 17th century

Pheasants under Cherry and Willow Trees Attributed to Kano Ryokei (died 1645)
Japan, Kyoto Prefecture
Nishionganji: Edo Period, first half 17th century
Ink and color on gold leaf on paper
63 x 143.25 in.

Background

Trade between Japan and China was reopened during the 12th century. This resumption meant that Chinese monochrome ink paintings could be imported into Japan. The first ink paintings produced in Japan following these Chinese models were religious, and were used in meditation and ritual practices by Zen Buddhist monks. Eventually, the techniques and themes of ink painting spread from the Zen monasteries to the studios of professional painters.

The painter of this work was probably a member of the Kano school, the hereditary family of painters employed by the Tokugawa shoguns and other military rulers from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Kano painters combined Chinese inspired themes and the brushwork style of ink painting with Japanese subjects and themes that reflected Japanese sensibility. This new style of painting was well suited to the sliding doors and folding screens that became the dominant type of official painting.

Screens
Originating in China, folding screens first entered Japan as gifts from the Korean Silla kingdom in 686 C.E. However, it was in Japan that screens achieved their full aesthetic potential as important aspects of interior decoration.
During the late 16th century the use of a gold foil background for painted screens became extremely popular, allowing the owner to display his wealth and status, and serving a practical purpose as well. In late medieval Japan the construction of stone fortifications made the bright effect of the metallic panels an asset in dark castles.

Theme of the Four Seasons
Japan is a country of marked by seasonal changes and the four seasons has been a favorite theme both in the literary and the visual arts. Specific images evoked a specific season and often, the human activities that were a part of the passing year. These seasonal images are often used a metaphors for human emotions. Sensitivity to the subtle changes in the landscape and the feelings these changes elicit have often been understood as the mark of a cultured person in Japan.

How to look at this work

In Pheasants under Cherry and Willow Trees we see two birds, a male and a female pheasant, under the shelter of three old trees with exposed roots. Growing near the trunks of these trees are leafy green plants. Moving upwards, there is moss growing along the trunks of the blooming trees, which display light pinkish-white cherry blossoms and light green dripping willow branches. On the left hand side of the screen are impressions of clouds above a dark sky.

The accompanying screen, Irises and Mist, shows Irises growing in a misty bank. Like the previous work, we can see the impressions of the clouds against the gold background. Irises, a common springtime flower in the United States, bloom during the summertime in Japan due to climatic differences.

In these works we see spring, shown through the predominant themes in the first screen (cherry blossoms and pheasants), followed by summer, in the form of the blooming irises, in the second screen.

Function

Traditional Japanese residence-whether house, temple, or palace-had few permanent interior walls. As much as possible, interior space dividers were kept movable. Folding screens were used as temporary space dividers since they are relatively lightweight, easily folded to portable size and easy to move or store away. In addition, they were used to create private areas in- or out-of-doors, as gifts, as backgrounds for concerts or dancing, and as backdrops for important ceremonies, including Buddhist and other rites. When decorated with a painting, a screen also became an object for visual pleasure and a symbol of the owner's wealth and power. Screens were usually made to suit the needs and tastes of a particular individual.

How this object was made

Each panel of a screen consists of a light wooden frame enclosing a lattice of wooden strips. Several layers of paper are pasted over this foundation to build up a backing to support the surface-usually paper, but occasionally silk-on which a painting is executed. The panels are hinged together with paper, which is interlocked and overlapped from the front of one panel to the back of the next. This allows the panels to be closely joined and to fold in an accordion fashion. A frame of narrow, lacquered wooden strips is attached to the outer edge of the entire screen. Screens were often, although not always, produced in pairs.

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