Before the importation of paintings and other artifacts during the medieval era, a native aesthetic flourished in Japan. Despite earlier patterns of strong interaction with continental cultures, ideas, and peoples, the Japanese maintained a constant course in exploring their own civilization. The Heian period represents the epitome of this activity, and the surviving art objects from this time are regarded with awe in Japan.
The sources for these extraordinary byøbu can be found in the twelfth century, the waning years of the Heian era. For while modern viewers delight in contem-plating the Mozartian rhythms of slender green fronds (and their accompanying pale yellow tassels) arching gracefully across this twenty-four-foot composition, those more familiar with the subject and format notice the shadowy remnants of the paper sheets that were once attached to the surface. Barely perceptible as square or narrow rectangular shadows emanating in seemingly haphazard fashion from every panel of the composition, they reflect a late Heian pictorial concept that whole-heartedly embraced the art of the poem. Indeed, ninth- and tenth-century documents relate the existence of byøbu whose literary themes actually provided the raison d'être for these screens.
An acute awareness of nature and its varied seasonal appearances provided the subject matter for the poetry produced by Heian courtiers and the educated aristocracy. Competitions on a selected theme between opposing "teams" took place at court, and the poems brushed in ink on decorated papers were often attached to nearby byøbu for inspection and contemplation. In other instances, a byøbu portraying a seasonal landscape, monthly festival, or narrative subject provided the topic for a poetry competition, and its surface could be used to affix poem papers.
In either case, word and image were inextricably bound together in a folding screen format in classical Japanese culture, and this presentation endured through-out the medieval and modern eras in Japan much the same way that gardens alluding to a Buddhist Western Paradise have been designed and built since Heian times. The underlying subject matter, of course, continues to be the fragility of the human condition and its attachments to the present world. Now nearly devoid of their original literary reminder of such traditional concerns, the modern viewer revels in the uncommon lyricism of this field of pampas grasses (suzuki), which in Japan have for cen-turies signaled autumn and its corresponding cycle of human life. Created by an anonymous artist versed in the techniques of yamato-e precisely at the time foreign ink paintings were most influential throughout Japan, these byøbu demonstrate the durability of native painting traditions at the highest aesthetic level.