Tosa Mitsuatsu’s byobu screens
When Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji a millennium ago, he probably didn’t expect to be lauded in the 21st Century as the author of the world’s first novel.
Nor would the Japanese novelist have foreseen his Casanova-like character’s tales depicted on large scale artworks in faraway lands.
The Queensland State Art Gallery is currently showing Tosa Mitsuatsu’s depiction of Genji Monogatari on byobu folding screens.
Byobu (屏風) literally means wind wall and has been a common Japanese art form since the 8th Century.
Two-dimensional high-brow dioramas? Possibly. They are also used as self-standing temporary walls to partition rooms.
Tosa Mitsuatsu created these two eight-panel byobu screens in the mid 18th Century.
To see the entire set of screens, one must walk back around ten big steps without tripping over the flat sofa. When you do the style appears almost contradictory.
Bold golden clouds appear cartoon-like in shape and contrast sharply to the 45 degree angled technical-drawings of the architecture.
The Japanese buildings all look like something produced for a high school graphics class and the flowers appear to be taken straight from a botany text book.
These clouds cover vast amounts of the accordion-like screens as does the almost-black water.
Did Tosa Mitsuatsu have troubles filling up the expansive screens? The Japanese have long considered space or blank paper as a medium to be exploited rather than filled.
People with simple facial expressions appear in simply drawn kimonos with flat patterns that do not conform to the laws of standard perspective.
On closer inspection, the subtle expressions suddenly show a rich array of emotions and life states.
Remarkable calligraphy skills are apparent in the hair styles of the characters.
A tethered cat runs from the last panel on the second-last panel just past the hinged section.
The fat opaque brushstrokes that make the darkened moon could be part of a child’s finger-painting.
In a perfect world the large pane of glass, that prevents viewers from carefully scrutinising the work, would be removed. Safely of course.
It is not apparent which character is the star. My guess is that Genji is the mysterious figure hidden behind the screens. Answers are not forthcoming.
The gallery’s database gives no more information than what the small plaque near the artwork contains. Maybe it is better that way.