A folding screen is a type of free-standing furniture. It consists of several frames or panels, which are often connected by hinges or by other means. It can be made in a variety of designs and with different kinds of materials. Folding screens have many practical and decorative uses. It originated from ancient China, eventually spreading to East Asia, Europe, and other regions of the world.
Origin in China
Screens date back to China during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty period (771-256 BCE). These were initially one-panel screens in contrast to folding screens. Folding screens were invented during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Depictions of those folding screens have been found in Han Dynasty era tombs, such as one in Zhucheng, Shandong Province.
A folding screen was often decorated with beautiful art, major themes included mythology, scenes of palace life, and nature. It is often associated with intrigue and romance in the literature of China as, for example, a young lady in love could take a curious peek hidden from behind a folding screen. An example of such a thematic occurrence of the folding screen would be in the classical novel Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. The folding screen was a subject that had often reoccurred in Tang literature. The Tang poet Li He (790–816) wrote the Song of the Screen, describing a folding screen of a newly-wed couple. The folding screen surrounded the bed of the young couple, its twelve panels was adorned with butterflies alighted on China pink flowers (an allusion to lovers), and had silver hinges resembling glass coins.
Folding screens were originally made from wooden panels and painted on lacquered surfaces, eventually folding screens made from paper or silk became popular too. Even though folding screens were known to have been used since antiquity, it became rapidly popular during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). During the Tang Dynasty, folding screens were considered ideal ornaments for many painters to display their paintings and calligraphy on. Many artists painted on paper or silk and applied it onto the folding screen. There were two distinct artistic folding screens mentioned in historical literature of the era. One of it was known as the huaping (Chinese: 畫屏; literally "painted folding screen") and the other was known as the shuping (Chinese: 書屏; literally "calligraphy folding screen"). It was not uncommon for people to commission folding screens from artists, such as from Tang-era painter Cao Ba or Song-era painter Guo Xi. The landscape paintings on folding screens reached its height during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). The lacquer techniques for the Coromandel screens, which is known as kuancai (literally "incised colors"), emerged during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was applied to folding screens to create dark screens incised, painted, and inlaid with art of mother-of-pearl, ivory, or other materials. Up to around 30 layers of lacquer could be used, each layer could have art incised, painted, and inlaid, which would made the folding screens stand out against its dark backdrop.
Spread throughout East Asia
Like many Japanese arts and crafts, folding screens originated in China. According to the 8th century work Nihon Shoki, one of the earliest folding screens to reach Japan was during the reign of Emperor Temmu (r. 672-686), which were received as gifts from the Korean kingdom of Silla. By the 8th century, folding screens became well known in Japan through China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), which led Japanese craftsmen to start making their own, highly influenced by Chinese patterns. During the late Muromachi period, the Japanese began depicting everyday life on folding screen, which was a custom imported from China.
Spread to Europe
Folding screens were introduced in the Late Middle Ages to Europe. In the 17th and 18th century, many folding screens were being imported from China to Europe. Especially the French had a certain admiration and desire for the Chinese folding screens along with the rest of Europe and they began importing large lacquered folding screens adorned with art. The famous fashion designer Coco Chanel was an avid collector of Chinese folding screens and is believed to have owned 32 folding screens of which eight of them were housed in her apartment at 31 rue Cambon, Paris. She once said:
- I've loved Chinese screens since I was eighteen years old. I nearly fainted with joy when, entering a Chinese shop, I saw a Coromandel for the first time. Screens were the first thing I bought.
Jacques Soustelle and Bernal Diaz report that screens were in use in Mexico during the Pre-Columbian era. The screens often had artistic representations, sometimes decorated with gold they were used as a fire screen or as partitions during meals.The Daily Life of the Aztecs. p. 122.
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In France, the craftsman were able to create screens that were hand carved and made of hard wood, leather, glass, and were hand painted. The rarest were the screens covered in silk or velvet tapestry and a few had embroidered floral designs. The screens were custom made and usually took as along as a year to create. The rarest screens to find today are the smaller child size screens. These were 3-4' tall. The value of these ranges from $10,000.00 to $16,0000.00 depending on the condition and the originality of the screen, with the silk tapestry being the screens to command the highest prices in today's market. These were sometimes double sided with the tapestry on both screen sides. The screens were made to the family's specifications, sometimes with glass framed photos of a family member built into the screen.
Although the folding screen was originally from China, it can now be found in many interior designs throughout the world. Some of the first uses of the folding screen were rather practical. It was used to prevent draft in people's homes as is indicated in the hanzi (Chinese characters) of its Chinese name (屏, literally "screen; blocking"; 風, literally "wind"). It long bestowed a sense of privacy. In classical times, folding screens were often placed in rooms to be used as dressing screens for ladies. Folding screens can be set up to partition a large room and change the interior features of the space. Sometimes the entrance from one room to another needs a false wall for the aesthetics and to create a desirable atmosphere by hiding certain features of a place, like doors to a kitchen, as for example when hosting guests. As many folding screens have fine artistic designs and art on them, they can fit well as decorative items in an interior design of a home.
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