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Gregg Baker Asian Art

An eight-fold paper screen painted in ink and colour on a gold and buff ground with the bridge and willow trees at Uji
Japan
Edo period 17th century
Dimensions: H. 49 x W. 145 (125.5cm x 369cm)

The image depicted on this eight-fold screen (to the best of our knowledge the only known example of its kind in this format) is generally considered to represent the bridge spanning the Uji River. Two willow trees placed either side of the bridge hint at the progression of the seasons, small, delicate leaves on the right hand tree symbolise spring, while the fuller, longer leaves on the left hand tree suggest summer growth. The strong architectural lines of the bridge are softened by the round forms of a waterwheel and jakago (stone filled baskets) which form the embankment. The fast flowing river gives movement to the otherwise quiet representation of this meisho-e (paintings of famous places).

Numerous lavish techniques, including silver leaf and various shades of gold, are used throughout the screen, the bridge, waterwheel and jakago are given an extra dimension by the use of moriage (raised decoration). Gold and silver leaf are used in several forms, as leaf on the bridge and waterwheel, as cut squares and dust in the clouds and as paint for the lines of the river and other features.

Japanese poets have long praised the scenic beauty of the Uji River which flows from Lake Biwa to Osaka Bay. Literary references to the location abound in imperial poetry and pre-date any existing images. The Man’yoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, eighth century) and the Kokin-shu (Collection of Poems from Ancient and Modern Times, early tenth century) include references to such features as the arching bridge (first constructed in 646 A.D.), trailing mist, moon, rock-filled baskets, waterwheels, willows and rushing torrents, while hinting at the religious associations of this area. In the eleventh century, Uji became home to the Pure Land (Jōdo) Buddhist temple Byodoin and its famous Hōōdō (Phoenix Hall). The temple and its grounds were a replica of Amida Buddha’s Western Paradise, a three dimensional construction based on the Kanmuryōjjukyō (Contemplation Sutra). Such literal manifestations of imaginary locations helped the aristocracy envision Paradise, a place they clearly hoped to return to after death. If this screen is read in the light of religious connotations then perhaps the bridge represents the connection between this land and the Pure Land.

Uji was favoured by members of the imperial court who used the area as a retreat; historic documents show a screen painting of Uji bridge in autumn, which was displayed in the imperial palace in the ninth century.

For similar examples see: Nihon Byobu-e Shu Sei – no. 9 Keibutsu-ga. p.43 pl. 21/22. The Kosetsu Museum. p.77 pl.50/51. Tokyo National Museum p.79 pl.52/53. Kyoto National Museum. Beyond Golden Clouds, Japanese screens from the Art Institute of Chicago and the St Louis Art Museum p.124/5. pl.10. Bridge of Dreams, The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art p.202 pl.80.

all text & images Gregg Baker Asian Art

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