THE EXHIBITION of 19 Japanese fans, fan screens and fan-shaped objects of the 16th through the 19th centuries, at the Freer Gallery on the Mall (through November), recalls a classic story of 15th-century Japan.

The tale begins on a brilliantly clear day, when the sun turned the world into a painting on gold leaf, spreading a golden glitter on even the most ordinary object.

A shogun rode in the great procession necessary to move so august a military governor from one part of Kyoto to another. As they crossed the Togetsu Bridge over the Saga River, a luckless attendant lost the fan he had been using to cool his sun-broiled head.

The fan was caught by the breeze and blown up and around as though some great wind god used it to cool the world under his command.The fan swayed, pirouetted and bowed with the practiced gestures of a dancer. Finally, the wind tired of the toy and relinquished its grip.

The fan floated slowly to the river. A gentle swirl caused by a protruding rock offered up its center as a pedestal. Gently the fan followed the small eddy around in a circle, in a parody of fanning, before floating down the river in graceful curves. As it went, the water gradually made the colors run, turning the painted objects into flowing abstractions. The sun spread a glitter of silver and gold over the water, sparkling the colors of the fan. The dark depths of the river reflected the light and the colors.

The youth who had lost his fan stopped, fascinated by nature's practice of the arts of dance and watercolor painting. Before long he was joined by a friend, who leaned with him over the bridge. The friend, pleased with the scene, tossed his fan, as well, to the gods of the river and the wind. A third courtier was caught by the natural design and threw his fan into the melee. One after the other, the rest of the procession was captured by the beauty of the accidental painting. And before long, the river was one great surging sea of fans.

The shogun himself, dozing in the shelter of his umbrella, protected from the brilliant sun, at first paid no attention. But as more and more of his attendants left his side and flocked to the bridge railing, he became first puzzled and then furious.

How dare his men so desert him? He rared up from his conveyance, pulled his sword and charged off to command obedience. The first attendants to see their master shuddered at their guilt, torn between the beauty of the fan dance and their dereliction of duty. His favorite, his chief of staff, dared to catch the shogun's arm as he was about to wield his dread sword, and bid him join in the admiration of the ephemeral art.

The shogun impatiently shook off his man, but chanced to glimpse the flood of fans. Against his will, he was caught up in the flow of the artistic events, and before he could steel himself against community feeling, he was overcome with emotion, and himself tossed his fan into the sensuous stream.

Master and men alike stood at the riverside and watched the fans describe S-curves and circles and lines as they flowed down the river interspersed with floating branches and scattered blossoms and leaves sailing like barques in a marvelous procession far greater than the shogun's parade. Not till the last fan had passed from sight did the shogun's corps move on.

The story of the wind, the river and the fans inspired a whole art form in Japan called ogi-nagashi-byobu, "Screens of Floating Fan." By the late 15th century, the folding screens were painted with fans turned this way or that, overlapping, open, folded, set against watery patterns and a gold background meant to suggest the golden sun reflected in water.

Sometimes the paintings were collages -- actual fanshaped paper cut and pasted to the background. Often the fans were painted directly on the canvas in a masterful trompe-l'oeil manner. Both methods are represented in the Freer show. One particularly lovely one is from the 17th-century Edo period, the studio of Sotatsu. In this one you can tell that the fans were painted before they were applied to the screen, because the raised chrysanthemum blossoms show through another fan overlapping.

Sotatsu, according to Yoshiaki Shimizu, the Freer's curator of Japanese art, is credited with "revitalizing the traditional mode of Japanese painting, yamato-e, through popularizing the style for both the aristocrats and the plebeians of the city of Kyoto." At least eight other sets of screens similar to the Freer example are known, including one in the Imperial Household colleciotn in Japan.

Sotatsu's studio was called Tawaraya. He himself won the title hokkyo (bridge of the law), the second of the Buddhist clerical ranks. He was related to high families and a friend of aristocrats and artists. Karasumaru Mitsuhiro's calligraphy decorates some of Sotatsu's work.

The screens, agrees Shimizu, were really the forerunner of assembly line work, which has made Japan a leader in mass production from electronics to automobiles.

"In the 16th century the fan-makers wre organized into craft guilds with a monopoly on fan making. One studio was known as the Kano. The master painter would do the design, and then the apprentices would copy it. We see numerous examples of the same basic pattern, repeated with individual variations," Shimizu says. "Often lesser painters would copy the famous paintings.

"The screens were not reserved solely for the rich or connoisseurs. Everyone had them -- the middle class, even the poor people had a community of taste. People say that the merchant class liked the more flamboyant-styles and the nobility the more restrained. But this is not so, people of all classes appreciated beauty. And because the screens were mass-produced, they were inexpensive enough so that everyone could afford at least one."

The way museums display the screens worries Shimizu. "In a Japanese home, the screens were not hung flat on the wall. They were objects of utility. The screens were brought out to divide a large room on some festive occassion. The smaller ones were set up around a tea kettle to keep the fire from blowing out."

In the Freer show, one of the most beautiful screen is one of these small ones, with a wooden frame, with a thick base carved with wave patterns. The screen, from about 1840, shows easily from where the American arts and crafts movement took its forms.

Before fan screens came fans. Probably the first fans were palm fronds, natural fans grown by nature. The Chinese developed a paper fan in the same shape, round or almost pie shaped. With a blunt bottom, mounted on a handle, they were called dansens or uchiwa. Shimizu believes that the Japanese invented folding wedge shaped fans called hiogi, made of Japanese cypress wood blades fastened together at one end and loosely held by strings at the other so they could be spread open or folded and held like a wand.

In any case they were used by male aristocrats at the 8th- and 9-th-century courts. By the 11th century, folding paper fans attached to ribs appeared. They were called kawahori, meaning to stretch paper. Sometimes they were called komori (bat) because they worked like a bat's wing.

Shimizu point out that Lady mourasaki's "Tales of Genji" in 1008 mentions courtiers holding "charming fans of all sorts" while attending an imperial birth.

Often people would have fan parties for their artistic friends. The host would provide blank paper fans, and the guests would each decorate one.

Today, men in Japan still fan energetically, at the theater, in crowds, especially in baseball games, says Shimizu.

The hot summer and the high price of energy has revived hand fans in Washington. Personal fans have recently appeared in Washington department stores. Woodward & Lothrop has carried the sweet smelling sandalwood fans. The Ginza Shop at 1006 20th St. NW carries fans of varying sizes, including the very large ones made of woven plant leaves, which are popular now as well decorations. Full Circle at 112 King St. in Old Town Alexandria carries bamboo and paper uchiwa fans from Japan, priced from 75 cents to $38. Hand fans are becoming so popular, you can often find them sold by a sidewalk vendor on K Street and in some People's Drug Stores.

A round, or uchiwa, fan in the Freer exhibit has a scene of Utsunoyama from the ise Monogatari on one side, illustrating a 10th -century poetic narrative happening in the autumn.

This fan is one of the loveliest. It tells the story of a man who meets a lovelorn poet. The traveler is entrusted with a verse to the poet's lady: Beside Mount Utsu In Suruga I can see you Neither walking Nor alas, even in my dreams. Translation by Helen McCullough

On the reverse is a chrysanthemum design, symbolizing the season. The flower is built up by the raised technique called moriage, layer upon layer of gofun, a finely ground shell white.

The artist, Hokkyo Korin (Luminous Gems) lived 1658 to 1716. He was a follower of Sotatsu.

A fan-shaped hanging vase, made of karatsu, a brown stone ware, reminds Shimizu of Oldenberg's pop-art objects. A kogo, or incense burner is another fan-shaped object. An early 19th-century cha-ire, or tea container, has a fan-shaped opening for the locking lid. The underside of the ivory lid, with the raised fan lock, has a tiny red acquisition number on it. When I looked askance at this, Shimusu said a famous Japanese tea master came to the Freer once, and admired the delicately written acquisition number more than anything else.

Three paintings in the exhibit depict fans. In one, a young man on a balcony holds a plum blossom. On the floor in front of him is a broken ceramic tray, shaped like a fan, holding a camellia blossom. In another, a dancer uses his fan in a formal posture.

A parody of a famous battle tale is shown in a third painting. The Taira clan propped up a fan decorated with a gold rising sun on their boat to taunt their opponents. A young archer called Nasu-no-Yoichi of the opposition Minamoto clan mounted a black horse and rode into the sea, calling upon the god Hachiman to give him a steady hand. The boat bobbed up and down, the high winds whipped the water into foam topped waves, the horse had to be persuaded to keep his unsure footing. But Nasu-no-yoichi drew his bow and shot down the Taira flag.

The painting parodies the episode. A langorous lady on the shore taunts a youth on horseback by holding a black fan with a red sun design, tied to a kiseru, a long pipe, against a samisen musical instrument.

When you go to see this wonderful show at the Freer, be sure to see the adjoining Japanese galleries: the ceramics exhibit and the long room of screens. The 12-panel "Autumn at Asakusa and Cherry Blossoms at Veno" by Hishikawa Moronobu of the 17th-century Edo period is a fine example of ukiyo-e painting. The panels are full of people using fans, round fans, folding fans, men walking and fanning, women sitting and fanning, people having picnics, people viewing the cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves.

If there were a magic way to join the people in that scene, there would be no one left in Washington.

Shimusu has only been at the Freer for a year, coming here after teaching at Berkley and Princeton. He says he came primarily for the joy of being able to work with such a magnificient collection of Japanese antiquities. "I rather like the title bestowed on me by a letter writer the other day," he said. "i was addressed as the curiorater."

In anyone's ratings, these curios are treasures.