Scenes of Life

A Japanese Screen and its (Hi)Stories

A Japanese screen (»byōbu«) picturing „Scenes on Shijō Street Near the River Bank“ from the beginning of the 17th century not only makes for a central exhibition topic but is as well a documentary medium.

  • DATES 07/05/2020—11/04/2021
  • Opening Hours currently closed
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[Translate to English:] bild

Japanischer Wandschirm
© GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Martin Lutze
Japanese Screen

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Japan, early 17th century. Life is throbbing on Shijō-Street in Kyoto. A porter is hurrying through the passage in between theatre stages, people are sharing picknicks, other watch the dancer with their fans, a woman is making small rice pies at her stall near the river. These miniature scenes of theatre pleasures and daily business are displayed on an object, indeed very special, held in the Japan-collection ar GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde at Leipzig: it is a so-called byōbu – a bi-winged screen, which was taken to the museum in 1891. Recently it was restored and will be visible in a special exhibition starting in April 2020.

The screen is in fact a hidden object game, allowing us to glimpse into Japan of the early Edo period (1603 – 1868). Clothes, haircuts, musical instruments and every day objects are displayed realistically, and the way the figures interact or pass by each other vividly tells us about society in the then capital city of the Japanese empire.

In Western perception such screens are among those objects that are associated as „typically Japanese“ since the somewhat nostalgic enthusiasm for Japan in the late 19th century – the so-called japonism. It is an object which is one the hand used as furniture, on the other serves as a picture portraying social status, handicraft and style of home furnishing. In this way it equally disclosed and hides something.

The Leipzig byōbu was purchased by Heinrich Botho Scheube (1853-1923) during his employment as doctor in Kyoto from 1877-1882. On his return to Germany he gave it to the museum in Leipzig, accompanied by a range of other objects he had collected. In the context of this collection, our exhibition intends to ask for then common images of Japan. Did Scheube have an interest in Japan than most of the stereotypical European perspectives of that time? How can we mediate from these „Scenes of Life“ expressing urban civic culture on the screen to the material culture handed down through the centuries?

Possible explanations will be discussed by help of several themed sections as well as historic photographies. Objects of collection, such as a »bentō box«, a drum, a fan, or a pair of sandals, give the opportunity to compare the real object and their artistic realisation on the screen. At the same time they show the diversity of the Leipzig collection.

Souvenir photography had a huge impact on images of Japan in Europe of the late 19th century. Western photographers often took these rather imaginary portraits of Japan for travelers. Mostly staged in studios they focus on topics that, from a European point of view, emphasised the special and „Other“ part of Japanese culture. In this, screens played a major role as requisites: They served as backgrounds for mostly young women to re-enact „Japanese“ life by needleworking, dancing or doing each other‘s hair.

In contrast the Leipzig byōbu was fabricated by local artists and must have belonged to Japanese household for over three centuies, before being purchased by Scheube.

With these historic perspectives in the „Own“ and the „Other“ in mind, we face the question of how we contemporarily perceive Japan. What do we know about this country and in how far do certain clichés survive?

The exhibition does not only attempt to give an insight into the art and cultural historic dimension of the screen, which originally ought to have had a bi-winged counterpart. We also show aspects relating to material and craftmanship of the restoration process which took place in close collaboration with Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (Tobunken). Transcultural dimensions of projects like these are central issues when considering the ethics of restoration in an anthropological museum of the 21st century.

The exhibition is under patronage of Uwe Albrecht, Leipzig mayor and councillor for economy, employment and digital affairs.

Cherryblossoms made of paper - a quick guide to Origami

Origami is the Japanese way of folding paper. Only by folding a square sheet of paper becomes 2D or 3D objects such as animals or cherry blossoms as you can find them in the exhibition. Restorator Vanessa Kaspar demonstrates how it works. Have fun trying it yourself!

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Origami – Wir falten Kirschblüten

Publication accompanying the exhibition

The third volume of Spurenlese which was released in March 2020, tells the hi/stories of a Japanese screen on display in the exhibition „Scenes of Life“ after having been restored. Let this short film get you in the right mood for Shijō Street in Kyoto at the beginning of the 17th century. You can order the publication for 10€ (plus shipping) in the GRASSI shop.
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When you play our YouTube or Vimeo videos, information about your use of YouTube or Vimeo is transmitted to the US operator and may be stored.

Spurenlese: Ausstellung im GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig

Have a closer look into our collection...

Many of our objects are connected by a diverse set of aspects.

Online Collection "Scenes of Life"

© Adrian Sauer

Digital exhibition

Our new special exhibition, "Scenes of Life. A Japanese Screen and its (hi)stories” not only tells of the pulsating life in the city of Kyoto, of theatre visits, gatherings on the street and shared picnics. It also illustrates the cooperation and lively exchange between fellow Japanese colleagues and our museum. In the current situation with the worldwide "shutdowns" of public life due to the Corona pandemic, the title "Scenes of Life" almost seems historic: Our idea of public life, of shared experiences and pleasures, will inevitably change. 

Furthermore, our usual form of working together on the special exhibition has been put to the test in recent weeks. How is it possible to carry out teamwork in a time when social distancing is becoming increasingly important? How many people are allowed to set up an exhibition, illuminate and photograph objects or install the air condition, wire and technical equipment at the same time? In small teams, we built "Scenes of Life" as best we could. Despite wanting to complete the exhibition as soon as possible, the health of our team is our primary concern.

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We originally intended to open the exhibition on 2nd April 2020 – with greetings, introductions, and music by DJ ONONiiONIONIION alias Taishi Nagasa. Until it will be possible for visitors to see the exhibition at our museum in person, we would like to invite you to take a virtual tour through the different chapters and to explore the different themes and objects.

As soon as the situation allows, we will open the museum and our special exhibition. Thus, more stories will be added to the "Scenes of Life" – and hopefully soon again, those of shared experience.

A publication on the restoration of the screen accompanies the exhibition. The authors of the numerous texts look at the paravent from different perspectives, among them are restorers, a Japanologist, an ethnologist, a journalist, art historians and a software strategist. Here you already have the opportunity to explore the paravent and it’s (hi)stories in greater depth as you leaf through the book. The publication can be ordered for 10 € (plus postage) from the museum shop:

We will also keep you up to date on Facebook about new dates and future events.

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