To properly appreciate Rimpa screens, you should sit on your heels on a silken cushion, sipping tea, with only candle and moonlight to catch the glitter of the gold leaf patterns. In the flickering light, the delicate patterns will change, even more, come to life as you watch.
"The screens are not to be viewed in flourescent light; it kills them," said Yoshiaki Shimizu, the Freer's curator of Japanese art, with a wave of his hands at the Freer Gallery's lighting. (Shimizu talked at the opening of the Freer's new exhibit, "Rimpa Screens," this week.) "At least we are able to display them standing by themselves, as they were intended to be. So many people mistakenly hang them flat, like pictures."
The screens were used as backgrounds for ceremonial occasions, or to provide privacy. Japanese architecture presumes that screens will substitute for many walls, allowing the space to be divided or open, as the occasion demands. Plain, ordinary spaces are made festive and elaborate by simply unfolding the family's treasured screen. The most valued screens are brought out only for ceremonial events, lest the eye weary of the richness.
The Freer has broght out a select group of 11 screens in the Rimpa style, dating from the late 16th through the 19th century. They are characterized by brilliant, rich, often metallic colors used in stylized designs with a rhythm that moves the eye from one panel to the other.
Two pairs are among six well-authenticated screens by Nonomura Sotatsu, who died in 1639. "Dragons and Clouds," fierce, frightening beasts portrayed in pink tint and ink, was bought by Charles L. Freer in 1905. It was not properly appreciated until 1969, when a Japanese art historian discovered the set in the Freer's storage. The other Sotatsu pair used gold and silver to set off the brown, green and blue rocky sandbars and trees. The label says that Sotatsu "translates the waves at Matsushima into sounds like the voice of the Bodhisattva believed to dwell in the ocean."
"The Cranes," attributed to Ogata Korin (though Shimizu has some questions about the authenticity) and "Trees" by Master of I-nen seal, both 17th century, are among the favorite screens of the Freer, often reproduced on note cards. I, for one, could look at them morning and night, and never turn away. A new, small screen, appropriate to the season, is Ito Jakuchu's "Chrysantheums," from the 18th century.
An added dividend, a small exhibit of charming pottery by Ogata Kenzan, brother of Ogata Korin, is on view in an adjacent hall for the next two weeks only. The screens will be on view until the galleries are closed, sometime in late winter. In January, the other side of the museum will be closed while a new climate-control system is installed.