A six-panel byōbu from the 17th century
Pair of screens with tigers and dragon by Kanō Sanraku
, 17th century, each 1.78 x 3.56 metres, displayed flat, which they would not be in use.
Byōbu (屏風, wind wall) are Japanese folding screens made from several joined panels, bearing decorative painting and calligraphy, used to separate interiors and enclose private spaces, among other uses.
Like many Japanese arts and crafts, folding screens originated in China; prototypes dating back to the Han dynasty have been found. The term "byōbu" figuratively means "protection from wind", which suggests that the original purpose of byōbu was blocking drafts. Byōbu were introduced in Japan in the eighth century, when Japanese craftsmen started making their own byōbu, highly influenced by Chinese patterns. Through different Japanese eras, byōbu evolved in structure and design, along with the techniques and materials used:
- Nara Period (646-794): The original form of byōbu was a single standing, legged panel. In the 8th century, multi-paneled byōbu made their appearance, and were used as furnishings in the imperial court, mainly in important ceremonies. The six-paneled byōbu were the most common in the Nara period, and were covered in silk and connected with leather or silk cords. The painting on each panel was framed by a silk brocade, and the panel was bound with a wood frame.
- Heian Period (794-1185): By the 9th century, byōbu were indispensable as furniture in daimyo residences, Buddhist temples, and shrines. Zenigata (銭形), coin-shaped metal hinges, were introduced and widely used to connect the panels instead of silk cords.
- Muromachi Period (1392-1568): Folding screens became more popular and were found in many residences, dojos, and shops. The two-panel byōbu were common, and overlapped paper hinges substituted for Zenigata, which made them lighter to carry, easier to fold, and stronger at the joints. This technique allowed the depictions in the byōbu to be uninterrupted by panel vertical borders, which prompted artists to paint sumptuous, often monochromatic, nature-themed scenes and landscapes of famous Japanese locales. The paper hinges, although quite strong, required that the panel infrastructure be as light as possible. Softwood lattices were constructed using special bamboo nails that allowed for the lattice to be planed along its edges to be straight, square, and the same size as the other panels of the byōbu. The lattices were coated with one or more layers of paper stretched across the lattice surface like a drum head to provide a flat and strong backing for the paintings that would be later mounted on the byōbu. The resulting structure was lightweight and durable, yet still quite vulnerable. If you poke your finger into the surface of a panel and you miss a lattice member, your finger will likely pass clear through to the other side. After the paintings and brocade were attached, a lacquered wood frame (typically black or dark red) was applied to protect the outer perimeter of the byōbu, and intricately decorated metal hardware (strips, right angles, and studs) were applied to the frame to protect the lacquer.
- Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600) and early Edo Period (1600-1868): Byōbu popularity grew, as the people's interest in arts and crafts significantly developed during this period. Byōbu adorned samurai residences, conveying high rank and demonstrating wealth and power. This led to radical changes in byōbu crafting, such as backgrounds made from gold leaf (金箔 kinpaku) and highly colorful paintings depicting nature and scenes from daily life, a style pioneered by the Kanō school.
- Modern period: today byōbu are often machine-made, however hand-crafted byōbu are still available, mainly produced by families that preserve the crafting traditions.