White Flowers in front of a Bamboo Fence, Rinpa school, Genroku period, 1688-1703. Photo courtesy Helena Markus Antique Japanese Screens.

Inen seal. Ink and colour on gold leaf. H 177 x W 186 cm

This screen belongs to a genre of lyrical paintings of flowers, grasses and other plants, that flourished around the middle of the seventeenth century.

The use of an abstract gold ground and the choice of the rather startling composition of clusters of flowers, was initiated by the Rinpa school and was often used by one of its founders Tawaraya Sōtatsu (act.1602-1642).

Painting ateliers led by Sōtatsu's followers continued through the end of the seventeenth century and beyond. On the whole, the identity of these followers remains a mystery; most did not sign their work but simply impressed one of Sōtatsu's seals, like the red, round Inen seal that appears on the left of this screen, just above the fence.

The screen is decorative in a way that is typical of Japanese art, both of the Rinpa and Kanō styles. Their secret is the reduction of the chromatic sphere to two or three colours only. Perhaps the best known example of this is the pair of screens with Irises by Ōgata Korin. In our screen we have gold, green and white (somewhat darkened with age) displayed over the whole surface of the screen.

There is, at the same time, a keen sense of naturalism in the attention to accurate details of the plants with the flowers and the wooden fence created with moulds of gold.

The interest in natural sciences was shared by many artists and patrons in the 17th century. Fuelled by widely circulated copies of Chinese illustrated herbals and Dutch botanical studies, the Japanese at this time began to publish books on medicinal plants, to establish herbaria and to appreciate gardening. The vogue for botanical studies cut across class lines.

The clusters of the large corymbs of white flowers dominate the foreground of the screen, leaning against the bamboo fence created totally in gold. A little oriental green finch (cardullus) is perched on the fence while another one is approaching from the golden sky creating the typical “motion and stillness” opposition frequently used by Japanese artists.

The image of plants depicted in clusters and the dense and compact composition are in the early Edo style which still reflects the influence of the Momoyama period.

Provenance: Japan.

Helena Markus Antique Japanese Screens. MasterArt at TEFAF 2014. 14-23 march 2014 - http://www.masterart.com/