Three Eras of Japanese Art

Post By: Janice Katz
Nov 03, 2013

Although it looked like one unified building from the outside, the three parts of the Hōōden (Phoenix Pavilion) were carefully conceived to showcase different historical eras of Japanese art. The interior structure and decoration of each room were done to match. This meant that as you moved through the Phoenix Pavilion, you could imagine yourself inside of a courtier’s residence, a shogun’s castle, and a medieval tearoom, all in the course of an afternoon. These were elegant period rooms to be sure, a veritable “theme park” of Japanese history. But importantly, this was a chance for the Japanese commission at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to show their country’s art in context, in its proper setting; a hanging scroll hung in a tokonoma alcove or a lacquer box placed on beautifully crafted staggered shelves, for example. The thousands of other objects at the exposition from Japan were not similarly contextualized – they were packed into chock-a-block exhibits in the Manufacture and Liberal Arts Building, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Woman’s Building and others. 

The three eras of the Fujiwara (Heian) period of 880-1150, the Ashikaga (Muromachi) period of 1350-1550 and the Tokugawa (Edo) period of c. 1600-1868 were chosen as themes for each section of the Phoenix Pavilion, with the latter made up of four rooms and taking up the largest central portion. The most prominent features of each part were the many wall paintings, done by faculty members of the Tokyo Art Academy.

Okakura Kakuzō’s Illustrated Description of the Hōōden (Phoenix Hall) at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 details everything to be seen, down to the smallest paperweight. The left wing was decorated in the manner of a high-ranking courtier’s residence of the Heain period, reminiscent of the Byōdō-in Temple or Imperial Palace in Kyoto. In this period, there were no paper sliding doors yet, so shitomi or shutters were used for privacy during the day. The ranma or transoms just under the ceiling were covered with paintings. The most striking feature of the interior of this room were the Kasuga Matsuri wall paintings of a Shinto festival by Kose Shoseki showing super-refined court ladies wearing many-layered kimono enjoying a day out.

The right wing was comprised of two rooms, a library and a tearoom. It was here that the first shogunal family, the Ashikaga, would have felt at home. Staggered shelves (chigaidana) and a tokonoma alcove displayed what would have been prized tea wares in their day. The paintings here were more muted and included ink landscapes that exemplified the art of Zen Buddhism.

In the central or Edo period section, a multi-room complex contained a sitting room, a library, and a small room where meals are arranged before being served. It is in this area that the decoration was replete with phoenixes of all kinds. Hashimoto Gahō painted the birds on the walls and Takamura Kōun carved them in the wooden transom panels or ranma. This was the heart of the Phoenix Pavilion, where even the coffered ceiling contained paintings of pairs of phoenixes in medallions.

Of all of these works of art, only the ranma, wooden transom panels of the central section remain in Chicago. After having been in storage for many decades, since 2011 they have been restored and are on permanent view in The Art Institute of Chicago’s Gallery 108.

  • The Phoenix Pavilion on the Wooded Island, 1893 (Courtesy of the Chicago Public Library, Special Collections)


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