At first, this scene appears a bit strange, if not bizarre: men, young and old, set in a vast wilderness playing a board game or executing an ink painting. The furniture and ceramic wares are elegant, the attire is fashionably informal, and the young attendants outnumber the gentlemen of leisure. Clouds and mist roll through the landscape, whose bleakness suggests late fall or early spring, a chilly time to be outdoors engaged in what Westerners would call pastimes or hobbies.
But we are viewing the past, a pictorial vision of a cultured gentleman's ideal in classical East Asian history: the Four Accomplishments. This enduring Confucian theme embraces the arts of calligraphy, painting, music, and go (a game of strategy akin to chess), each of which is portrayed or suggested in this pair of sixteenth-century screens. In the left screen, the multiple brushes and a large flat rock surface for writing refer to painting and calligraphy; in the right screen, a seven-stringed musical instrument, a qin, protected in cloth and resting on the large wooden table close to the game players indicates music and the game of go. The daily pursuit of one or more of these activities has a venerated history in ancient China, one that was transmitted to Korea and Japan by at least the fifteenth century, when interest in Chinese culture pervaded medieval Japanese society.
In Kyoto, Zen culture favored this theme, introduc-ing it into mural painting programs organized for temple interiors as early as the late fifteenth century. The Kano school painters, in particular, are noted as the most prolific exponents of this theme, and their popularity reached a high point in the early seventeenth century. The Kano atelier produced many hundreds of paintings in various formats for private and institutional clients, guided by the work ethic, management skills, and academic painting style of Kano Motonobu (1476-1559). These screens follow that master's style as it is exem-plified in the c. 1513 sliding-door panel paintings depict-ing Zen patriarchs from the Daisen-in subtemple at the Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. Those byøbu, traditionally attribu-ted to his son Kano Shøei, show Motonobu's legacy of distinctive "nailhead" brushstrokes (in the depiction of robing), spiky and elongated plant forms, and crystal-line rock formations. The new, more relaxed pictorial ele-ments and broader painting techniques that give this com--position a distinct sense of quietude, however, sug-gest the hand of Kano Yukinobu, who was also active in the later sixteenth century in Kyoto. Comparison with the narrative and compositional elements of Horses and Grooms in the Stable  is as enlightening as it is instruc-tive in helping distinguish yamato-e and kara-e painting styles, parallel streams in medieval Japan.
Two unobtrusive elements in the byøbu here pro-vide telling insights into the evolution of the Four Accomplishments theme in the sixteenth century. First is the greater importance placed on the depiction of a land-scape setting. Second, these lofty exemplars of classical China are portrayed in groupings that convey a distinc-tive relaxed ambience when compared to earlier Chinese or Japanese presentations. To understand this important leitmotif emerging in conventional ink painting circles at mid-century, one need only gaze upon the young page slouched beside the stream watching fish swimming nearby. Confucian ideals as well as notions of Zen recti-tude have been superseded in these byøbu by a series of beguiling vignettes showing human engage-ment and companionship in an open and receptive natural setting.