Artist Unknown  A Rare and Important Early Six-Panel Folding Screen Depicting Female Proto-Kabuki, Momoyama (1573-1615) or early Edo (1615-1868) period, circa 1610-1620 (3)
Lot 321*
Artist Unknown
A Rare and Important Early Six-Panel Folding Screen Depicting Female Proto-Kabuki, Momoyama (1573-1615) or early Edo (1615-1868) period, circa 1610-1620
£ 80,000 - 100,000
US$ 100,000 - 130,000

Lot Details
Artist Unknown  A Rare and Important Early Six-Panel Folding Screen Depicting Female Proto-Kabuki, Momoyama (1573-1615) or early Edo (1615-1868) period, circa 1610-1620 (3)
Artist Unknown
A Rare and Important Early Six-Panel Folding Screen Depicting Female Proto-Kabuki, Momoyama (1573-1615) or early Edo (1615-1868) period, circa 1610-1620
A chubyobu (medium-sized screen) of six panels, painted in ink, colours and gold on paper, depicting a performance by the Okuni kabuki troupe at the Kamo Riverbed in Kyoto: from right to left an outdoor sumo-wrestling bout, labourers carrying loads of charcoal, travellers crossing a bridge over the Kamo River, vendors seated on the ground selling their wares, loincloth-clad swimmers, fishermen, the theatre entrance with a taiko drummer, weapons and spectators on a yagura (elevated scaffold), a crowd of excited male and female spectators, a female kabuki performance (see below) and revelling picknickers; with a storage box and an earlier wooden frame and base. Overall: 101cm x 258cm (39¾in x 101 5/8in); image: 87.5cm x 245cm (34½in x 96½in). (3).


  • Provenance
    Purchased by the present owner in Akita Prefecture, circa 2006-2007.
    On deposit at Kyoto National Museum, 2012-2014.

    In the first decades of the seventeenth century, a woman by the name of Izumo no Okuni both shocked and delighted the inhabitants of Kyoto by performing kabuki odori ('wild and unorthodox dancing') on the dry riverbed of the Kamo River and at Kitano Shrine. Leading a troupe of female outcasts whom she trained in dancing and singing skills acquired during her time as a shrine maiden in her native Izumo Province, Okuni developed a new style of theatrical performance characterized by lively action, colourful costumes, sexual innuendo and humour. Her growing popularity and use of an all-female cast attracted official displeasure and in 1629 the shogunal authorities issued an edict forbidding women from taking part in theatrical performance, thus unwittingly laying the foundations for the world-famous dramatic genre we now call kabuki, with men playing both male and female roles.

    Okuni soon passed into urban mythology and the present lot, an important discovery, is one of a small group of very early screens that depict an actual performance taking place in the lively, hedonistic world of Momoyama-era Kyoto. One of the nearest parallels, in point of the detailed depiction of Okuni's performance rather than the location or overall composition, is provided by a six-panel folding screen now in Kyoto National Museum (Important Cultural Property; at 88 x 268cm, its dimensions are very close to the present lot); a reproduction can be found in Takeda Tsuneo (ed.), Nihon byobu-e shusei (Collected Japanese Screen Paintings), vol. 13, Fuzokuga: Sairei, Kabuki (Genre Painting: Festivals and Kabuki), Tokyo, Kodansha, 1978, cat. no.58, where Hattori Yukio assigns it a date of circa 1605-1614.

    As the museum's website ( points out, the performance features just three actors: an actor wielding a sword, a woman sitting by the pillar, and a third character, a saruwaka clown in the case of the Kyoto screen but in this lot another character seated to the left. This indicates that the piece being played is probably Chaya asobi (Fun at the Teahouse), one of the Okuni troupe's standard acts, and the website suggests that the absence of the three-stringed shamisen demonstrates that the Kyoto screen depicts an early phase in the development of Okuni's entertainments; it also identifies the venue as the Noh stage of the Kitano shrine, where Okuni's kabuki troupe performed according to a document of 1603. In the present screen, although the stage itself resembles the Kyoto and other versions, as argued in a recent article by Professor Matthew McKelway (see below) introducing a newly discovered pair of early-kabuki screens, the large bridge on the first panel points to the Kamo Riverbed at Gojo as the location of the performance. This is helpful in determining the early date of the present lot, since in later versions the location shifts from Gojo to Shijo.

    The screen introduced by McKelway also resembles the present lot in exhibiting a unmistakable narrative structure from right to left and including an elevated platform with taiko and weaponry; as McKelway comments, the fact that a variety of weapons is shown, rather than a single type, is another indicator of early date. The earliest possible date is 1607, since the other half of the pair in the McKelway article depicts the Kitano Shrine with alterations to its architecture made at that time; see Matthew McKelway (Tateno Marimi trans.), 'Shinshutsu "Kitano Yuraku, Okuni Kabuki zu byobu": Shoki kabukigoya no ichi hensen o megutte (Merrymaking at Kitano and Okuni Kabuki: The Movements and Meaning of the Early Kabuki Stage)', Kokka, 1449, July 2016, pp.7-21.
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  1. Suzannah Yip
    Specialist - Japanese Art
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8368
    FaxFax: +44 20 7468 5840
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