Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Painting Formats in East Asian Art

While the earliest known paintings in East Asia were painted on the walls of tombs, during the last two millennia, a variety of distinctive portable formats for viewing and storing paintings and calligraphy were developed and are common, with certain nuances, to all three countries of China, Korea, and Japan. Typically, paintings and calligraphy are created by an artist on sheets of paper or silk laid on a flat surface. The finished work is then mounted on a support system in the suitable format. Because a water-soluble glue is traditionally used to adhere the picture to the mounting, the two can be separated and the latter replaced from time to time to help preserve the work of art. In all cases, it has never been the tradition in East Asia to display works of art for long periods of time. They are shown for short occasions and then put away in storage.

Album—Albums are comprised of relatively small square, rectangular, or fan-shaped paintings or calligraphy mounted onto individual pages and then assembled in a booklike structure (viewed from right cover to left). Collections such as this can be assembled by artists or collectors and are organized according to a specific artist, period, or subject matter.

Fan—Traditionally, oval fans made of stiffened silk mounted on a bamboo stick were used in China. Folding fans, made of folded paper braced by thin bamboo sticks, are thought to have been developed in Japan and Korea and then exported to China, probably during the Ming dynasty. The surfaces of these fans were often decorated with small-scale paintings or calligraphic inscriptions. To better preserve the work of art, fans are often removed from their bamboo frames and mounted onto album leaves.

HandscrollHandscrolls are used for horizontal paintings and calligraphy. Although often displayed fully opened in modern museums, this format was traditionally viewed section by section, unrolling and rerolling a portion at a time, moving from right to left. Separate pieces of paper are often appended to the mounting after the work of art (which can be on numerous sheets of paper or silk arranged end to end) to provide space for later viewers to inscribe commentaries. The entire mounting is attached to a wooden dowel at the end on the far left, on which the handscroll is wound. The right edge of the handscroll typically has a length of woven silk to serve as a wrapper when it is closed, as well as a ribbon and clasp to secure the roll.

Hanging scroll—This format is used for vertical compositions. The completed image is mounted onto a paper backing, then framed with decorative silk borders. The silk mounting is attached to a wooden rod at the bottom to provide the necessary weight, so that the whole will hang smoothly on a wall. This rod also helps to roll up the painting for storage. A hanging scroll is suspended from a cord tied to a thin wooden strip attached to the top of the silk mounting. In Japan, paintings are traditionally mounted with more borders of different colored material than in China. Furthermore, two hanging silk streamers are suspended from the tops of the hanging scroll mountings, a practice that is probably an archaic holdover derived from early banners.

Screen—Fixed screens, typically of a single large panel, were a popular method for displaying large paintings in China. The use of these screens can best be glimpsed in paintings of interiors decorated with them. While both fixed and folding screens were imported to Japan and Korea from the Asian mainland, the latter format has become closely associated with Japanese art. Folding screens have been used indoors and outside in Japan since at least the Heian period, although they did not become widely used among the upper classes until the Momoyama period. Folding screens usually are produced in pairs and can have up to eight panels, although six-paneled screens are most common. They are typically made of a light wood frame holding a lattice of thin wood strips. Layers of paper are fixed to the lattice to create a support onto which the paper or silk painting is attached. The individual panels of the screen are connected with a complex assembly of paper hinges. An outer frame, frequently covered with black lacquer, completes the assembly. Related in structure, visual appearance, and function are sliding doors, used to provide decorative wall surfaces as well as architectural versatility.