liza dalby

 

a well hung scroll

The art of making a hanging scroll is full of contradictions. Even when done superbly, the mounting is not supposed to draw attention to itself. The whole purpose of mounting a work of art is, after all, to showcase the art. But a bad mounting is distracting, and in the worst cases, ruinous to the art it is meant to present, preserve and protect.

Mounting tends to be anonymous—mounters consider themselves craftsmen rather than artists—but as is the case with ceramics, weaving, woodworking, lacquer, and many other traditions, the line between art and craft in Japan is a fine one.

Clothing the Art

A mounting can be considered as attire for the artwork. “Mounting” in Japanese, hyōsō, literally means “dressing.” The skill of the mounter is his dexterity with paper and silk; but his art is that of a fashion coordinator—choosing the colors, textures, fabrics, and proportions that will make the artwork appear to best advantage.  The aesthetic is similar to that of kimono dressing—combining and contrasting pattern and color creatively within given constraints of form.

Most of the work that comes to a mounter’s workshop today consists of repairing and re-mounting older pieces rather than creating new ones. Much as the mounter aims for durability, inevitably, an often-displayed scroll will need repairs.  We have all seen old scrolls piled into an umbrella stand at Oriental antique shops—frayed, age-spotted, missing cords, coming apart at the seams. Scrolls age rather like people. Luckily, there is plastic surgery for scrolls, too. The old backing paper and glue can be re-moistened, peeled away, replaced and stretched out again with fresh fabric—a new dress for an aging beauty whose wrinkles have been smoothed away. This is why the only paste used is grain starch-based, which dissolves when wet. Modern synthetic glues will not release, and cannot be redone. (For the same reason, violins are glued with natural animal-based glues that can be dissolved and reapplied when the instrument needs repair.)

The Process

The process of mounting a painting or work of calligraphy into a scroll is finicky, demanding the use of specialized brushes, knives, paste, and boards. It involves a drawn-out sequence of cutting, backing, and joining paper and silk in several layers to create a finished object with wooden rods enveloped snugly at either end, fitted with metal eyelets and strung with a cord.

All of the component elements, when prepared properly, aim to make the hanging scroll strong yet flexible. For unlike a framed piece of art which lies immobile behind its glass, a scroll must be an athlete—stretching full and straight when hung, rolling up like a yogi when tied with its cord and stored. And it must do this over and over. This is why special Japanese paper with a subtle warp and weft is used for backing paper, and why fabric and paper are always lined up on the warp dimension. Achieving a balance between these goals of strength and flexibility, is what dictates the viscosity of the paste—thin as skim milk for paper-to-paper adhesion, like cream for paper to fabric, and thick as jam for joining the backed pieces. Paper is dampened and slowly stretched to dry, over and over, each time in the layering process, becoming smoother, sleeker, stronger. With days or weeks between steps, and depending on the ambient humidity, it can take months or longer to finish a scroll.

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My eyes became attuned to hanging scrolls over the many years I spent in Japan when I was young. Of course I liked scrolls as art, but did not really notice them as scrolls until I lived in Hong Kong and saw many Chinese examples. Suddenly I became aware of the different aesthetic driving the way Chinese and Japanese mounters worked. Of course, like many now-thoroughly Japanese cultural artifacts, rollable scrolls were a Chinese invention, first imported into Japan and copied in the sixth century. But like many Chinese arts adopted into Japan, a new aesthetic gradually took hold, changing the original object in interesting ways. Japanese sensibilities really are quite different from Chinese, and a hanging scroll is the perfect object to illustrate many of them.

In fact, the closer one looks at the elements of a scroll, and the more one knows about how it is created, a fascinating universe of cultural choices is revealed. There is something deeply reflective of Japanese social and aesthetic norms rolled up in these creations of paper and silk.

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