My fondness for screens accumulated slowly over time, or more precisely, word by word, sentence upon sentence.
My old home is situated on Zhongshan Road in Taichung, the ground floor being a shop for business and the second floor our living area. It opens out to a 10-meter-wide street. From the period of Japanese occupation to the 1980s, the area around my old home was the business district in the city center. My childhood room had tatami mats and sliding shōji doors, and in addition to the old cabinets, the main piece of furniture in our home was the terrazzo coffee table made by my father when he was a young construction and engineering apprentice. We used the table for everything; the entire family dined around it, the kids played games around it, and grandmas played cards on it. All this is to say that screens were not a part of my life as I was growing up.
The screens mentioned in Dream of the Red Chamber, one of my favorite books, incorporate the aesthetics of noble aristocracies during the Qing Dynasty, and thus they are of course expensive and prestigious. In order to appear respectable in his reception of noble guests, Jia Rong goes out of his way to borrow a set of glass screens on the stove bed from Sister Feng. Today, glass products are common, but during the Qing Dynasty, it was an expensive item given as a tribute to the noble houses, owned only by the royal families and aristocracies. The screen, which once served as a wind shield, was developed into a specific art form during the Qing Dynasty, combining such craftsmanship as calligraphy, painting, wood carving, enamel, ivory carving, Suzhou embroidery, carved lacquer and so on; studded screens are beautiful beyond words and can emanate an air of magnificence in a room full of furniture.
Elaborately carved Qing Dynasty screens can be seen in Hu Xue-Yan’s old residence in Hangzhou and many other numerous court houses, as well as the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Another one of my favorite books is The Tale of Genji, which is set in Japan’s Heian period, an era heavily influenced by the culture of the Tang Dynasty. In the book, one can see elaborately framed color-painted screens standing in sparsely decorated rooms, witnessing the unfolding of beautiful yet sorrowful stories. With lovers courting each other on either side of the screen, the screens help the plot lines of love stories develop, serving as the boundaries of forbidden love.
Screens in the style of the Tang Dynasty are popular in Japan to this day; in rooms paved with tatami mats or wooden floors for seating, screens are much like mobile wall paintings. They are compact when folded up, but can become up to six times larger when fully unfolded.
When I was in Kyoto last May purchasing painting materials and framing tools, I paid a visit to the Kyoto Imperial Palace to finally have a look at the architecture that features the spatial aesthetics of the Tang Dynasty. I knew that my artistic tastes were peculiar, yet when I heard that the film The Assassin, which was directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and adapted from legends during the Tang Dynasty, had garnered critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, I suddenly felt I was not alone.
At the movie premier of The Assassin, I could not wait to get in. Though I have attended Zhu Tian-Wen and Xu Fang-Yi’s forum on The Assassin and have read many movie reviews on the film, I was still unclear as to what the director intended to express through the movie when I walked out of the cinema. What impressed me the most were the beautiful camera shots, picturesque landscapes, and gilded muslin curtains blowing in the wind. Of course, there were also the screens. Whether it was the gilded screens in the chief meeting hall or the indoor screens with flowers and intertwining branches, they are all clear and strong expressions of the confident and expansive Tang Dynasty culture.
In the book “In Praise of Shadows”, the author, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, describes Japanese gilded fans and gilded screens as follows:
“As the footsteps move from forward to sideways, the gilded foil will glisten brightly. It’s not a fast-paced glittering but a change akin to giants changing facial expressions, exuding masculinity, a glistening light born out of long-term gathering of energy. At times, the gilded foil, which has been polished to a peel-like texture, gives off a slow lazy shimmer, but suddenly turns to full-on flames, as if it is on fire, when seen from sideways.”
What Tanizaki describes is how people lit lamps or candles in the darkness of traditional buildings to appreciate the enticing beauty of screens in the pre-electric-light era.
How will the beauty of screens be re-presented? My fond appreciation for screens over the years has come to fruition after I invested myself in contemporary ink wash painting.
This work started with an abstract painting. Three other paintings soon followed to complete the four-part work “Spring Blooms”, expressing a poetic state of mind where imagination runs free.
“Flowers in spring, chirping in the mountains
Blooming, budding in fresh greenness,
Playing an orchestra of silence amongst the rocks.”
Arriving on the third floor of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, one can see “The Garden” a four-part screen created by the Japanese painter, Gobara Koto, one century ago. The gilded frames and the silk in the back all convey an elaborate mellowness and turn what was once an unclear scene into clear focus. Compared with the complex and diverse screens during the Qing Dynasty, I much prefer such simple and rustic Japanese-styled screens.
It took half a year to turn this work from imagination into reality. It turns out that today in Taiwan, making a Japanese-styled screen by wrapping layers and layers of paper around an wooden spine is harder than going to the moon. We will spare you the details of the complex process in creating the work. When the wood craftsman finally stood the “Spring Blooms Four-Part Screen” up after the completion of the complicated procedure, the screen can travel back in time across centuries of darkness, much like the mysterious gilded foils in front of candle flames, to strike at the heart in focused pursuit of perfection. This piece of art is like a mountain full of spring flowers in full bloom, filling the heart with warm touching emotions.
【 “Spring Blooms”, a Four-Part Screen Creative process 】