Unlike oil paintings in the West, which sometimes stay on the wall for years at a time, many Japanese paintings are shown only for brief intervals—as little as a few hours or up to a few months—before being returned to storage, where they might spend most of their time.
Traditional painting formats such as folding screens and hanging scrolls facilitate changing displays.
When looking at art, people familiar with this practice might pay attention to specific seasonal references and thematic links to occasion. For example, visitors might expect auspicious symbols for a birthday, and perhaps something more spiritual at a memorial service. Conversation at a social gathering or other event might begin by talking about the art on display.
For more than a thousand years, multi-panel folding screens such as scenes from The Tale of Genji provided temporary barriers for privacy and protection from wind, and served as easily changed decoration for ceremonial events and domestic living.
Scenes from the tale of Genji (detail), Momoyama period (1573 –1615), by Kano Sōshū (1551–1601). Japan. One of a pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, colors, and gold on paper. Courtesy of the Larry Ellison Collection, 2013.2.18.
In Buddhist temples, painted scrolls were traditionally displayed with flower-filled vases, incense burners, candleholders and other objects.
In a residential setting, painted scrolls like the mynah bird in a persimmon tree were often displayed in an alcove (tokonoma) with flowers and precious objects in other mediums, drawing attention to thematic and aesthetic relationships between disparate elements.
Mynah bird in a persimmon tree, Edo period (1615 –1868), 1763, by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800). Japan. Hanging scroll; ink on paper. Courtesy of the Larry Ellison Collection, EX 2013.2.028.
The environment for viewing
Other conditions of the environment, such as lighting and seating, also have an effect on how art is appreciated in Japan. Before the advent of electricity, natural light provided illumination for Japanese homes and had a profound, if subtle effect on the appearance of artwork.
Depending on time of day and weather, painted screens might look quite different as light passes across gold-leaf surfaces and folded panels, cast in shadow; candles and oil lamps at night present yet another effect. And in traditional Japanese residences, guests sit on the floor at the same level as the artwork, offering an immersive perspective of painted scenery that changes as one moves about a room.