The distinction between fine art and decorative art had no currency in Japan until the late 19th century when Western art historians began to impose their domestic theories and classifications. The co-existence of 用 and 美, function and beauty, was integral to the Japanese aesthetic. Thus ‘painting’, designated as fine art and given superior status in the West, is to be found on ‘functional’ objects such as folding screens and sliding doors, and on vertical hanging scrolls.

While Japanese screens are popular worldwide, they have been defined largely as items of décor, rather than recognized as fine art. Once the Western prejudice of fine art existing only on a canvas within a frame is dismissed, the true beauty and value of the Japanese screen can be acknowledged.

Washi stretched over a wooden frame, gold and silver foil squares applied thereto as the base for the artist’s painting, the traditional Japanese screen was designed to divide and manipulate physical space in Japanese homes and palaces where space was not allocated functionally as in Western structures… in Japan art is functional and space is not; in the West space is functional and art is not!

In the palaces of the Tokugawa shoguns these extraordinarily large canvases served as emblems of power and privilege. The shimmering gold backgrounds reflecting the subtle candlelight spoke of wealth, their powerful images serving to remind audiences of authority. The angled and hinged panels, functional in the reflection of light and the stability of the form, provided the artist with a challenging flexible canvas.

This traditional art form has been revived and transformed at the hands of contemporary screen artist Maio Motoko. Reinventing the double-sided hinges of the Muromachi period, Maio’s works are double-sided installation art works that bring together the traditional form with the dynamics of the contemporary world. The sizes of the folds of the screens are varied thus creating maximum flexibility in spatial formations. With her explorations of the yin and yang in materials and design, Maio moves beyond the physical world to the hidden world of emotional space.


Lesley Kehoe