What’s Up at the BMA: Japanese Battle Screen

/ Collections - What's Up at the BMA

Japanese Screen that was recently installed in the Japanese Art gallery.
The Battle of Ichinotani, detail, Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), About 1787, folding screen, ink, color and gold foil on paper, Gift of the Asian Art Society, 2015.12

Did you know? A mere 12% of the Museum’s collection of 27,000 objects is on view at any given time. Our preparators are constantly working to rotate and refresh our gallery spaces, so that every time you visit the Museum you’ll see something different. Each month, we will highlight a new work for you to experience and show you “what’s up” at the Museum right now.

We recently installed a new six-panel folding screen in the Japanese gallery. Dated to the Edo period (1615–1868), it tells the story of the turmoil that characterized the late 12th century in Japan. During this time, the Minamoto (or Genji) and the Taira (or Heike) fought for control of the country. The Battle of Ichinotani, depicted on the screen, was fought in 1184 and was one of the most important battles during the civil war.

The panels are read from right to left and tell the story in a continuous narrative form, with golden clouds separating the scenes. Throughout the screen, the Minamoto warriors, who would eventually win the war, can be identified by their white banners, while the Taira clan carries red banners. The screen also shows a unique feature of samurai armor: horō. These large, balloon-like cloaks on the backs of some of the mounted warriors served as arrow catchers to protect the back of the warrior. Originally this screen was one of a pair. The other screen (whereabouts unknown) showed the subsequent naval Battle of Yashima.

While the screen was in relatively good condition when the Museum received it from an art dealer in Kyoto, it had suffered some wear and tear over the years. This prompted the Museum to have it remounted and conserved while it was still in Kyoto. After removing the paintings from the framework, the mounter found a variety of papers used as filler between the front and back of the screen. Consisting of accounting lists, practice calligraphy, and various other recycled papers, some of these were dated (1750, 1757, 1772, 1780, etc.). The mounter saved as much of the original framework and mounting fabric as possible, helping preserve the antique feel of the screen.

Be sure to come by to see this rare piece of Japanese art, now up at the BMA!

The conservation of the screen was generously funded by the Asian Art Society.