|« Back to CONNECT|
Date: c. 1600
Medium:Ink, pigment on gold, pair of six-fold screens
Geographic Location: Japan
Dimensions: Overall: 65 3/4 x 133 x 3/4 in. (1 m 67.01 cm x 3 m 37.82 cm x 1.91 cm) Depth (folded): 13 in. (33.02 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.
Object Number: 1989.78.A-B.McD
This pair of elaborate Japanese six-panel screens contains painted scenes detailing the narrative of an eighth-century Chinese poem, “The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.” This poem describes the anti-conventional indulgence of Taoist immortals as they participate in revelry and conversation to escape from the everyday and transcend the material world. The figures in the painted scenes engage in camaraderie and excessive drinking, and are placed within a natural setting, which speaks to the Taoist emphasis on harmony with the natural world.
Chinese themes, which appear regularly in Japanese art during the Momoyama period (1573-1615), were intended to suggest the sophistication and learnedness of the patron or owner of these screens.
Figures known as hsien, or immortals, appear in Taoist art more than any other Taoist figures including gods. According to legend, the immortals were historical persons who achieved immortality through the refinement of body and mind. They inspired followers seeking inner peace and everlasting life in addition to functioning as guardians of Taoism. Eventually, a group of “Eight Immortals” was created, with legends surrounding each individual member’s life and transcendence into immortality. These figures and their stories are the repeated subject matter of much Taoist literature and art.
“Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup” is a classical Chinese poem by the Tang dynasty poet, Tu Fu (712-770 A.D.). This poem describes the camaraderie and excessive drinking of eight real people, all of whom are members of high society, including a prince, prime minister, Buddhist monk, Taoist follower, as well as poets and artists. The poem recounting their indulgence describes a divergence from conventional inhibitions and social regulations in favor of a less controlled and more organic philosophy of life. Communal drunkenness, a traditional Taoist method of transcendence, originated as the practice of ching-t’an or “pure conversation.” This tradition allowed a small group of intellectuals to gather, relax, and engage in philosophical conversation as a method for abandoning everyday life and following a path towards enlightenment. For subsequent generations, the subject was a popular one in Chinese and Japanese painting.
Japanese artists often took Chinese themes as their subject, and there are several early Muromachi ink paintings portraying the Taoist immortals. These depictions were likely painted by monks interested in Taoist philosophy. The immortals came to symbolize spiritual and intellectual freedom informed by Zen and Taoist principles. Japanese artists occasionally portrayed the immortals in parodies of nonspiritual behavior, associating them with mankind’s aspirations towards immortality, while expressing the humor and tragedy of humanity.
Taoism was founded in China by Lao-Tzu (Low-Dzuh) in the sixth-century B.C. Characterized by a concentration on nature and the forces of the universe, Taoism calls for living one’s life in harmony with the Tao, or Way, which is the predesigned and ultimately correct path. Taoists believe one should lead a life of non-action and serve their role as a part of the design of the universe, free of personal ambitions and desires, to achieve harmony.
Although Taoism began as a philosophy, in the third and fourth centuries A.D. it became a religion focused on the achievement of immortality. Taoist philosophy generated a large amount of literature surrounding natural themes which visual artists used as subjects in their work. Religious Taoism quickly became separated from its philosophic origins because of the principal concern of gaining immortality. The pursuit of a hermetic lifestyle, important in the quest for immortality, also played a key role. By the eighth-century, there were over 1600 active Taoist monasteries, and the religion had developed a pantheon of gods in addition to creating scriptures and monastic orders.
Taoism, although never established in Japan as a formal religion, appeared in Japanese literature and art. Tales of immortals traveled to Japan within a larger body of Chinese legends concerning wizards, miracle workers, and yogis.
Chinese subjects and visual elements appear often in Japanese art, particularly folding screens. The inclusion of Chinese literary subjects in a work of art indicated a high level of sophistication and learning among patrons. The earliest consumers of objects such as these screens included the imperial family, nobility, and Buddhist monks. Buddhism, which became known in Japan through relations with China, achieved the peak of its influence during the Muromachi period (1392-1573). This period also saw a rise in the inclusion of Chinese natural motifs, including birds, flowers, animals and insects in Japanese compositions.
From the Muromachi period forward, Japanese screen paintings can be divided into two stylistic and thematic traditions: those that focus on native themes and those that focus on Chinese themes. Native themes include representations of famous locations in Japan, traditional activities, and literary scenes. Screens with these themes were commonly used to decorate the homes of the aristocracy, whereas screens decorated with Chinese themes frequently appeared in temples as backdrops for Buddhist ceremonies and rituals or in the intimate spaces of Japanese literati.
Increased interest in classical Chinese learning during the Momoyama (1573-1615) and Edo (1615-1868) periods allowed members of various social classes to use Chinese themes in Japanese art as a medium to demonstrate their learnedness.
The figures in this work gather around tables, chairs, and a screen, all of which are typical of indoor settings. However, this scene takes place out of doors, with the figures surrounded by a landscape of rocks, plants, trees, mountains, and water. The concept of escaping the interior spaces associated with daily life for the natural world was a key component of Taoist philosophy and religion. Nature themes often appeared in Chinese poetry, as in the case of this poem by Tu Fu:
“Already mid-spring on the riverside,
Sunrise opens beneath the blossoms again.
Hoping to see the bird, I look up. And
Turning away, I answer…no one there.
I read, skipping over hard parts easily,
Pour wine from full jars… The old
Sage on O-mei is a new friend.
It is here, in idleness, I become real.”
--- Tu Fu (712-770 A.D.), from “Two Impromptus,” in The Selected Poems of Tu Fu
With the decline of Ashikaga power in the 1560s, the feudal barons, or daimyos, began their struggle for control of Japan. The ensuing four decades of constant warfare are known as the Momoyama (Peach Blossom Hill) period, which gained its name from the site of the last great architectural project of the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). Through the efforts of three warlords, including Toyotomi, unity was gradually restored and Japan became a single, unified authority.
The DMA screens, with their highly ornamental character including extensive gold leaf, are characteristic of the Momoyama period, which marked a shift towards secular themes in art. The period consisted of two distinct phases of style: the opulent and robust, to which these screens belong, and the sparse and understated. The first included lavish ornamentation applied to architecture, furnishings, paintings and garments. The other was a response to the first, which set up a counter-aesthetic that returned to the simplicity of historical precedents.
During the Momoyama period richly painted screens became a major form of decoration for the castles and palaces of the nobility and military lords in Japan.
2. Different from paintings on canvas or drawings on paper, screens consist of several connected planes across which the painted scene extends. What role does the format of the screen play in this composition? How might the scene appear different if rendered on a single surface?
3. Consider the setting in which these figures are placed. What role does nature play in this scene?
4. Why do you think the artist would have chosen to include such a large amount of gold in this work of art? What can this tell us about the object itself and the subject matter shown?
5. The revelry shown in this object is intended to aid the figures in their spiritual journey as Taoist followers. What rituals and ceremonies do other religions promote as a method of spiritual advancement?
|Learn about the Monoyama period in Japan.|
|Learn about the poem "Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup."|
|Curator Anne Bromberg discusses this painted screen.|
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.