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9 Jul 20

‘Unfolding’ Japanese screens


Folding screens, known traditionally as Byõbu in Japan, were initially utilised for the purely practical purpose of blocking drafts in Japanese homes. Over time, they evolved into beautiful multi-panel artworks that conveyed the status and wealth of their owners. While the painting itself is what engages the viewer for its beauty and composition, it is interesting to consider the supporting structure of the screen behind and the craftsmanship involved.

The NGV has some wonderful examples of Japanese folding screens in the Collection. The earliest screen by Hagetsu Tosatsu dates 1565. The Collection represents the usual elegant subject matter for screens, such as birds and nature, often with reference to the four seasons, but also has screens displaying other subjects, for example the interior of a horse stable, a noble ladies carriage and flower cart and evocative scenes from the famous Tale of Genji.

Japanese Modernism includes the very beautiful Preparing to go out by Taniguchi Fumie, painted in 1935 and while comparatively modern certainly in subject and painting style, the traditional format is used to great effect. This screen is not only highly decorative, but also supremely elegant like the women it portrays.

Folding screens are constructed using three main materials, timber, paper and paste.

Internally each panel is the same, based on an outer timber framework with a square lattice-like-timber structure within. The squares measure approximately 12cm and are made of a softwood such as cedar.

The panels are then covered with numerous sheets of paper, applied to each side of the lattice framework. In total there may be upwards of ten layers of paper applied to both sides of each panel. The layers are made from numerous small sheets of paper and their layout is very specific. The layout considers the fibre direction of individual sheets of paper, the overlapping build-up and tension produced from the attachments.

The papers are pasted to the timber framework, and then to each other, using starch paste. The papers create a flat, taut facing either side of the panel. When all layers of paper are attached the final product is a light-weight panel leaving air pockets between the lattice structure.

During the panel’s construction the hinges are incorporated onto the longer edges. Once again these are made of paper and are positioned to alternate with the adjacent panel. The hinge attached to the front of one panel is then adhered to the back of the adjacent panel, thus allowing the panels to align seamlessly. It is important to understand that Japanese paper can be extremely strong and flexible depending on the type and length of plant fibre used. Of the Japanese papers, kōzo (made from the paper mulberry tree fibres), mitsumata and gampi are the most common. All require a painstakingly long cleaning process during production. Kōzo is both the strongest and the most lightweight, owing to its long and high-quality fibres. It has had an important role in architecture, used for walls and windows, printmaking and has commonly been used in screens.

Upon completion of the panel making, the painting is finally adhered in place. Paintings are commonly executed on paper or occasionally on silk, using pigment, ink and sometimes with a gold or silver leaf background. There are many beautiful examples in the NGV collection of folding screens with gold leaf as a background.

The screen will be mounted after the painting is attached, whereby final embellishments are added, and the structure made secure. The mounting involves adding the decorative paper to the reverse side, which is often a stencilled pattern or silk brocade, adhering silk brocade borders to the front, securing the lacquered timber edging and attaching metal fixtures (right angles, studs and small decorative lengths often made from brass and engraved).

Folding screens are light-weight and easy to reposition, however they are inherently vulnerable to poor handling. The paper covering the hidden lattice structure within the screen is susceptible to puncturing and dramatic changes in climatic conditions can result in splitting or distortion. Neither forms of damage are easily repaired.

Following specialist training in Japan, the NGV Paper Conservators have gained knowledge and skills in remedial repairs for these screens. Japanese materials and the specialist techniques traditionally used, are undertaken in the conservation studio, in keeping with Japanese tradition. The NGV Paper Conservation Department has also been collecting pigments and dyes used in Japan, along with specialist papers, over many years and continues to do so for conservation purposes. In addition to repairs, conservation ensure great care is taken in the handling and storage of these precious artworks to ensure their safety.

Ruth Shervington is Senior Conservator of Paper, National Gallery of Victoria

View in NGV Collection online
Flowering plants of the four seasons
Birds and flowers in a landscape
Noble lady’s carriage and a flower cart
Preparing to go out
Egrets among reeds

Watch on Channel
Floral Arranging Series | Episode 1: Japanese Ikebana Arrangements

See in Exhibitions
Japanese Modernism