A tiger's tale: British Museum buys rare Japanese screen

  • 20 October 2006

The Art Fund has given a grant of £92, 695 - half the total amount needed - to buy an outstanding painted screen by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-95), the most influential Japanese painter of his generation, for the British Museum.

The total cost of the acquisition was £185,390. The screen is now being publicly exhibited for the first time, forming the centrepiece of the new displays in the Japanese Galleries.

The screen gives us a riddle to solve – how does the tiger get her cubs across the river? The puzzle has its origins in an ancient Chinese legend. It was believed that if a mother tiger gave birth to three cubs, one of those was always a leopard, or hyo. The tiger must carry her cubs one by one across a fast flowing river, but in making the crossing she must take great care not to leave the ferocious hyo alone with one of the weaker cubs. The clue to the riddle is that the fiercest cub, shown alone on the right hand side of the screen, has travelled the furthest. The tale is depicted in ink, colour and gold-leaf on a delicate paper surface.

Ōkyo’s style of painting was revolutionary at the time, coupling a suggestion of space in a picture - learned from European painting techniques - with a belief in painting from life whenever possible. However, although tigers feature regularly in his work, it is unlikely that Ōkyo ever saw a living tiger, and he will have had to refer to imported Chinese paintings and tiger skins – this may explain why his tigers appear rather un-ferocious and cat-like.

Ōkyo, the founder of the influential Maruyama-Shijo school, worked closely with his students; it is likely that he was assisted in this work by senior pupils. The artist particularly excelled in painting on large formats such as sliding door panels and folding screens; he undertook major commissions for the imperial palace and temples throughout Western Japan. Although the British Museum has one of only two major collections of Maruyama-Shijo school paintings outside Japan, this will be the first large scale work by the artist to enter the Museum’s collection.

Purchased from Japanese art dealer Ryo Iida, it is very likely that the screen was once in the possession of famous Japanese collector, Hara Sankei (1868-1939), whose seal appears on the back of the screen. His collection was dispersed after his death. It forms the centrepiece of the newly-opened ‘Samurai, court and townspeople’ section of new displays in the British Museum’s Japanese Galleries entitled Japan from prehistory to the present.

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