Japanese Art

Discoveries: A Pair of Equine-Themed Japanese Kano Screens

By Mark Stephen
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T his pair of Japanese screens were consigned to Sotheby’s from a client who used the online request an estimate service to obtain a valuation. They were purchased in Japan in 1970 from an antique dealer who told the client that the screens had been in the private collection of a venerable and well-regarded antique dealer from the Toyama prefecture who died aged 95. They sold for £125,000 in the May 2019 Fine Japanese Art sale,

They were expensive enough that the client paid for them out of her salary over a year. The client writes: "Our parents lived in Tokyo from 1967-1972. We were there as my father worked for the pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson and he was given a role to start a manufacturing branch in Japan. He, in particular, loved Japanese culture but it was my mother who bought the screens. I remember them on the walls in the staircase of our terraced Victorian house in Edinburgh when I was a child and they were on the walls of the little house in Surrey where our mum lived before her death."

The screens were painted by an anonymous Kano artist. This family-based school dominated Japanese painting from the 16th to19th centuries, and most painters received their initial training under a Kano master. The school was famous for monumental landscape, figure and bird-and-flower compositions executed for the Shogun and high-ranking samurai.

The military rulers patronised artists not only for the aesthetic appeal of the art, but because they realised that art could symbolise their power and status, and thus they filled their castles with screens to act as room dividers and draught excluders. By the end of the 17th century, after a long period of unification, peace and prosperity, wealth had spread to other classes including the merchants and shipping agents in the towns of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo, so art became more disseminated, and Kano artists branched out to paint genre scenes for their new wealthy patrons.

Painting became more stylised and formalised, reflecting the tastes and status of the patrons. A widely used technique was to ink and colour paper over gold highlights. These particular screens would have been painted for a Samurai given the fine horses on display, a pre-occupation of the warrior elite. Other similar screens are known including horses in pastures and horses being trained. The impressive steeds tethered in immaculate looking stables demonstrate the power and wealth of the owner, for stables in Japan were then a formal show-place as opposed to just somewhere to keep horses.

The artist has created twelve paintings of different horses, showing different breeds and colours, some at rest and others pawing the floor and rearing, each on a separate leaf. But each leaf is then harmonised by the use of the same geometric lines of the stable floor and walls, and the horizontal tethers running across the screen, that serve to draw the eye from each panel to the next, and unify the composition. The stables have become a stylised formal theatrical stage in which the contrasting curvilinear shapes of the horses are displayed. One senses that the artist has painted to a formula as these are not portraits of specific horses but rather ideal horses to reflect the status and desires of the patron. The effect is surprisingly fresh and modern, giving the screens a universal appeal.

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