Edo, which was what the city of Tokyo was called prior to 1868, is a place in time possessed with almost mythical connotations for lovers and adherents of Japanese art. As well as representing a time of economic wealth and prosperity in Japan the Edo period is considered to be the high point or flowering of Japanese art and culture.

A recently opened exhibition at the Israel Museum titled, “Unfolding Worlds: Japanese Screens From the Gitter-Yelen Collection,” presents 15 folding screens, many of which date from the Edo period, and allows the viewer a glimpse into the lives, work habits and preoccupations of the town’s inhabitants. Screens showing traditional landscapes and folkloric scenes, among others, are also on display.

This lovely exhibit was organized and curated by Miriam Malachi, the museum’s curator of Asian art, who initially made contact with Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Yelen through Gitter’s sister, who lives in Jerusalem.

The collection, best-known for its Zen paintings, is highly regarded and has been shown throughout the world.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Malachi provided some insight into how the exhibition came about.

“Gitter and Yelen were visiting Israel and I met them in Tel Aviv. They expressed interest in collaborating with the Israel Museum and suggested I make a proposal,” she said.

“I knew that when the collection had been exhibited in the past the focus had been on the Zen Buddhist paintings and thought this might be both a challenging topic for the Israeli public and a difficult show for me to curate. Both Gitter and Yelen were pleased with the concept of an exhibition focusing on the screens in their collection, some of which have never been exhibited before,” explained Malachi.

Japanese folding screens, or byōbu (roughly translated as “protection from wind”), were originally constructed to mark spatial divisions within a room and served both practical and decorative functions. The owners of a screen might use it for a ceremonial backdrop if an important guest was visiting or to create a sense of privacy within traditional open-plan houses.

The construction of a screen involved a high degree of workmanship. Each screen consists of several panels connected with paper hinges, binding the panels closely together to ensure a continuous flow of movement in the painting. The finished work was glued to the panels and silk and lacquer were applied to the borders to protect the painting when the screen was moved.

A central concern of Japanese art and aesthetics, rooted in Buddhist philosophy, is the theme of nature and the changing of the seasons. The screens were constructed in such a manner as to allow the owner to fold and store them, permitting the appearance of a room to be altered at will and enabling a screen to be used for the appropriate season.

One of the most decorative screens in this exhibit is titled, “Flowers and Plants of the Four Seasons,” and was painted between the years 1830 to 1840 by Yamamoto Baiitsu. Following the Asian convention of reading text, a screen should be viewed and understood from right to left. As the viewer’s eye roams across the screen, Baiitu’s ink painting shows the warm and vibrant colors of trees and fauna in the full bloom we associate with spring and summer. Further along the more subdued and muted colors of autumn and winter are revealed. Everything is transient, implies the artist.

The pictorial representation of the physical world was intended to make the viewer aware of the cycle of life, assisting them toward spiritual reflection.

As well as informing the viewer of some of the decorative and profound aspects of Japanese art the exhibit also attempts to shed some light on the urban life of Edo, a city then under the governance of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Under its reign, said Malachi, “The city thrived and intellectual life was important. The samurai elite started to reconnect with their culture and history. Previous to their control the imperial court exerted a strong influence, but the samurai had different concepts of intellectual and artistic life which were not as traditional as the court ideal,” she explained.

The samurai had a preference for bold and bright colors in painting. Striking colors can be seen on the kimonos and traditional dress of dancing figures in a screen painted by Kamisaka Sekka. Another screen rendered in vivid colors, attributed to Ippitsusai Buncho, shows throngs of people congregating outside a kabuki theater in what was referred to as the “pleasure quarters” of the town.

The two aforementioned screens focus on a particular place or event. Two pairs of screens spanning approximately two to three meters in length offer wonderfully panoramic views of the bustle and activity of Kyoto, then the capital city of Japan, and of scenes from Japanese folk tales. A wealth of detail can be observed in the screen, titled, “Scenes In and Around the Capital.”

Close inspection reveals a variety of scenes and characters typical of 18th century city and village life; craftsmen ply their trade, hawkers sell their wares, produce is hauled in ox-drawn carts; men, women and children can be seen going about their daily business or taking their ease. All this activity takes place against the backdrop of a mountainous landscape dotted with lakes, trees and notable man-made structures, such as pagodas and bridges. This screen, painted circa 1700, is one of the highlights of an exhibition that is warmly recommended.

Malachi hopes the connection with Gitter and Yelen will be ongoing.

“They have an excellent collection. Alice is an art historian and the collection is well curated. It’s a complicated procedure to ship the collection and they are particular about where they show it, but yes, I hope this will not be the last time we show their works,” she said.

Unfolding Worlds runs through November 8. For more info visit www.english.imjnet.org.il.

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