Japanese Six-Fold Screen

Japanese, 16th-17th Century

Painted in ink with soft red and green wash. Late Muromachi (1392-1573) or Momoyama period (1573-1615). The screen is one of a pair of classical Buddhist landscapes depicting the four seasons, this hanso being of spring and autumn.

Height  67"  (1,70m).
Width of each leaf  26¾"  (68cm).
Total width   13'5"  (4,08m) .

Inscription in Japanese on label on right hand edge of screen, ‘Muromachi Period. Shokei [name of painter]. Ink. Chinese Landscape’.

Exhibited :-  Japanese Painting from 15th-19th Century, Tokyo Gallery, London, 1976, no. 83.

The style of painting is of the Unkoku school, founded by Unkoku Togan (1547-1618) in the Yamagichi prefecture in the late-16th Century. Unkoku Togan was initially a servant of the Daimyo Mori Terumoto who ruled a large area of land in Western Japan. In 1593, the Daiymo gave Togan permission to live in a temple called Unkoku-an. This temple had once housed the studio of the important artist and Sōkoku-ji monk, Tōyō Sesshū (1420-1506). Sesshū is considered to be one of the founders of Japanese ink painting (suiboku).(1)

Unkoko Togan also became a Zen Buddhist monk and adopted the name Unkoko in honour of the Unkoku-an Temple and its earlier inhabitant Sesshū. Though he never met Sesshū, by moving into the temple, Unkoku Togan succeeded him and continued the tradition of ink painting.(2)  He had studied Sesshū's work, even copying and adding an inscription to one large landscape scroll in 1593. He worked mainly in monochrome and often on sliding (fusuma) and folding screens (byōbu). The Unkoku School of painters which he founded, flourished until the early-18th Century and continued into the 19th Century. In the Edo period there were several accomplished artists who worked for Kyoto's aristocracy and military elite and also the rising merchant class.

Early Unkoku painting such as this screen, closely resembles the style of Sesshū, although the line is softer and light colour is introduced. It is also more naturalistic. This Zen-influenced art, with its distinctive calligraphic brush-stroke originated in China and was introduced to Japan in the 15th century. One of the earliest examples of this 'new' style is a pair of screens by the Korean artist Rin Shubun in the Cleveland Museum of Art, which are dated between the 1423 and 1440. The representation of the Four Seasons is very similar to that of this screen.(3) Other close comparisons are with a pair of 17th Century six-fold screens in the Museum of East Asian Art, Berlin, ‘Views of the West Lake’,(4) and a pair of Muromachi Period screen, ‘Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers’, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.(5)

Folding screens originated in China but were being produced in Japan from the 8th Century. They were used as items of furniture rather than works of art in themselves and were made for domestic homes, temples and government buildings. Their primary role was to define space in an otherwise bare, square room and were also used for religious and secular ceremonies. Unlike the sliding doors (fusuma), they were not fixed in one place and could be moved from room to room, wherever they were required. They were therefore made of lightweight materials; a wooden frame covered with paper. Their portability has ensured their survival as they could be easily moved in times of danger. They usually came in pairs while the fusuma were always made in pairs.

In the Muromachi and Momoyama periods, screens contained a continuous image enclosed by a narrow border. Like a handscroll, the image was to be read from right to left, with no fixed viewpoint and with a horizontal emphasis. In China, the panels of screen had been treated as separate entities, though the subjects were related. A reason for this could be that the panels were joined together by leather or metal hinges, which meant there was a distinct gap between them. In Japan however, paper hinges were used and this meant that there could be less of an obvious break between the panels. The introduction of the paper hinge coincided with the introduction to Japan of Chinese monochrome landscape painting as seen in this present panel. Screens were painted with a continuous narrative and the horizontal emphasis was further accented by the reduction of the height and the lengthening of the width of the screens.



1.  Oliver Impey, The Art of the Japanese Folding Screen, Ashmolean Museum, 1997.

2.  Sesshū had travelled in China in the 1460s and had learnt the technique of ink painting in Chinese Zen monasteries.

3.  Sherman Lee, Japanese Screens from the Museum and Cleveland Collections, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1977.

4.  Museum no. 1980-3a-b. Illustrated in Kodansha, Japanese Art - The Great European Collections, nos. 29 and 30.

5.  Museum nos. 11.4149, 11.4150, from the Fenollosa-Weld Collection. See Kajima, Volume 1: Chapter 7, p. 133, no. 107 (1 & 2).

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