A screen from ‘scenes in and around Kyoto’ by Kanō Eitoku

‘Scenes in and around Kyoto’

When you peer through the delicate clouds of gold leaf that curve and curl across the screens, you can see all of 16th century Kyoto life play out before you. Street vendors selling their wares, people relaxing at home, visitors from faraway lands, picnickers sipping tea in the shade of delicately painted trees and even the famous Gion festival parade. Thousands of exquisitely rendered figures are depicted across the two folding screens known as ‘Scenes in and around Kyoto’ – a Japanese national treasure, which is also part of the the Tsuzuri Project, a collaboration between Canon and the Kyoto Culture Association.

Delicate and decorative paper screens, scrolls and sliding doors are synonymous with Japanese culture and famous for their exceptional detail, ethereal beauty and craftsmanship. Many historical examples have not survived and only 162 have been designated as ‘national treasures’, some dating as far back as AD 618. These are, of course, incredibly fragile and held in storage at museums for their protection. This sadly means that many of these precious cultural assets are not widely accessible to the public. The Tsuzuri Project seeks to rectify this by creating high resolution facsimiles of the originals, using of Canon’s state of the art imaging technology. The project then donates them to the owners of the original pieces throughout Japan.

A screen from ‘scenes in and around Kyoto’ by Kanō Eitoku
A screen from ‘scenes in and around Kyoto’ by Kanō Eitoku. Current owner: Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum

‘Scenes in and around Kyoto’ – Uesugi version

This particular piece is part of a tradition of screen paintings known as ‘rakuchu rakugai zu’ (‘scenes in and around the capital’), and because they are not paintings in the traditional sense, many versions exist (or have existed) as studios painted several to satisfy demand from visitors to Kyoto seeking a memento of their time in the city. They are also fascinating in that many are not the work of a single artist. Junior artisans, under the supervision of a ‘master artist’ in their atelier (or studio), undertook different aspects of the screens, dependent on what they were specialising in at the time – figure painting, for example, or structures. Many, many skilled painters across Kyoto were employed to create these tiny complex scenes of everyday life across beautiful delicate screens.

This is why the Tsuzuri Project references the ‘Uesugi’ version. Many consider it to be the finest example of ‘Scenes in and around Kyoto’ and it was gifted to the daimyō Uesugi Kenshin by his counterpart Oda Nobunaga. The named artist is Kanō Eitoku, who was the grandson of the founder of the illustrious Kano school of painting – probably the most important school of painting in Japanese art history. Kanō’s gifts as an artist aside, it is easy to see why this piece is so culturally important to Kyoto, and indeed Japan. Kyoto was a centre of great creativity in this time, a hub for art, crafts and architecture. The colours, buildings, flora, fauna, livelihoods and even fashions depicted are a historical document of lives lived at so many social levels.

The screens split the city into east and west, with the east capturing summer’s famous Gion festival in minute detail and the west depicting the Kubo and Hosokawa residences, but both are set in amongst dozen upon dozen of smaller stories, weaving in and out of the precisely applied gold leaf. Highborn ladies stroll in the sun, with servants holding parasols to shade them. Bare chested men standing in a river grasp wriggling fish, while women and children watch from the bank. Musicians perform to crowds and palanquins transport nobles through the streets. Every kimono is unique. The roofs of buildings are meticulous. The greenery looks soft enough to touch. In its individual detail it is a marvel, but seen as one, the screens look almost map-like, even taking into account the sweeps of gold leaf cumulonimbus. If you could take the time to count, you would discover an astonishing 2485 people across the two screens, from nobility to common people and everything in between. It is an exceptional accomplishment.

A Canon DSLR mounted and ready to photograph a piece of artwork
A specially mounted DSLR takes high resolution images of the original work.
A master craftsman works with gold leaf
Master craftsman, Hiroto Rakusho, painstakingly applies gold leaf in the traditional fashion to each facsimile.

A harmonious blend of technology and crafts

To faithfully reproduce a piece of such complexity is not easy, but the Tsuzuri Project is committed to such a task, using cutting edge technology and combining it with traditional applied arts, such as gold leafing. A specially mounted DSLR takes the initial images of the artwork, which are digitally ‘stitched’ together and an image processing algorithm is used for colour correction. The algorithm makes tiny, highly accurate colour adjustments to the image, based on the light where it will eventually be displayed.

The subtle texture and ancient colours are reproduced on an imagePROGRAF large-format printer, on a specially adapted washi – a centuries old handmade paper from Japan that is valued for both its strength and durability whilst retaining a soft, light texture. Canon’s own R&D team worked to make this traditional surface suitable for the printing process, without compromising the need to apply finishes, such as gold leaf, gold paint and isinglass (a substance used to adhere gold leaf). Finishing is undertaken by Hiroto Rakusho, a master craftsman and leaf artist from the Nishijin district of Kyoto, and director of the Kyoto International Cultural Foundation with whom Canon partners on the Tsuzuri Project. Each element of gold leaf is applied with the utmost care, in order to create the most faithful of replicas. Finally, the piece is mounted on an authentic Japanese folding screen by a master craftsman with extensive experience in restoration of Kyoto’s cultural assets. 

In all, over fifty facsimiles of culturally significant works have been produced since the beginning of the Tsuzuri Project in 2007. They have been gifted to shrines, temples, museums and prefectures in order that future generations may enjoy them and learn from them.

Further exquisite examples of Japanese art can be found on the Tsuzuri Project website. To examine ‘Scenes in and around Kyoto’ in more detail, a navigable online version is available via Google Arts and Culture.

Written by Anna Shaw

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