Folding screens are called byobu in Japanese, meaning protection against (byo) the wind (bu). Byobu originated in China where folding screens were commonly used during the Han dynasty (206 BC–221 AD). They were introduced to Japan in the seventh century and by the eighth century were widely used at the imperial court and in the homes of aristocrats. In Japan the full aesthetic potential of the folding screen was developed as it became an important aspect of interior decoration.
A byobu is most commonly made as a pair of six-fold screens. The individual paper panels are pasted onto a wooden framework joined by paper hinges consisting of strips of paper wrapped horizontally from the front of one panel to the back of the next. Light in weight, the folding screen is convenient to use, portable and is easy to store when not in use. The byobu is meant to be freestanding, with the panels opened in an accordion-like manner (or in a ‘U’ shape) for stability. It is used as a temporary divider of interior space, as an enclosure outdoors, or as a backdrop for important ceremonial occasions.
According to literary sources, the use of gold leaf on screens dates back to the fourteenth century and reached its height in the Momoyama period (1573–1615), when gold was applied liberally on many screens.
In the late Heian period (898–1185) distinctive Japanese traditions of art and culture evolved and flourished. In the imperial court at Kyoto an aristocratic culture emerged with an underlying feminine sensibility. Yamato-e, the Japanese style of painting that developed during this period, was also regarded as the feminine style of painting. In contrast, Kanga, the Chinese style of painting or lineage, was considered the more virile of the two and was thus regarded as the masculine style of painting.
This screen is painted in the Yamato-e style of delicate colours, surface design and with an interest in themes of everyday life. It is a stylised representation of a stable with six impressive steeds tethered in separate stalls beneath a horizontal band representing the roof. Behind the stable a bamboo grove is enshrouded in golden mist. The steeds are portrayed in dynamic movement, as if posing for a formal portrait. They are also paired, either facing or looking away from each other, in continuous rhythmic movement, which suggests that this screen is the left-hand one of a pair. The screen was probably an idealised portrait of the prized horses of a feudal lord (daimyo), indicating his wealth and status.
Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)