New book solely on nanban screens

cover-nanban-screensA book on nanban screens? What are nanban screens? Nanban is usually translated as southern barbarians and that was how the Portuguese in 16th and early 17th century Japan were referred to, as they arrived in Japan from the south. Around 1600 the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan and the unloading of their ships with exotic cargo was regularly depicted in painted folding screens (byōbu) and it developed into a special type of genre painting: the so-called nanban screens. Nanban art is not just limited to screen paintings but also includes lacquer and ceramic objects and paintings of religious (Christian) topics.

Alexandra Curvelo, scholar at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, has investigated twelve nanban screens. They are described and illustrated in detail in  the publication, which holds examples from the Kobe City Museum; Idemitsu Museum, Tokyo; Nanban Bunkakan, Osaka; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon; Victoria and Albert Museum, London and more.

Nanban screen paintings are usually produced in pairs and three types can be distinguished. In the first type, the left screen shows the arrival of the Portuguese ship and its unloading and the right screen presents the procession of the Portuguese dignitaries in the Japanese city of arrival, surrounded by curious local Japanese people.
The second category shows big ships on both screens, where the left one refers to the foreign harbor of departure and the right to the arrival in Japan. Curvelo’s description of the third type is more or less similar to type two, although more emphasis is on the fact that the left screen of type three refers to a European setting, whereas harbors visible in type two screens can also be in Asia.

All three categories are included in Curvelo’s publication. The introduction is fairly short and provides a quick overview of the history of the Portuguese in Japan and nanban painting by the Kano school of painters.

The great value of the book lies in the possibility to see so many screens together, with so many detail illustrations, which makes it possible to compare paintings. Curvelo presents the iconography of each painting and indicates how historical developments influence this iconography (or not). For instance, the author mentions that after the arrival of the Dutch in Asia the Portuguese repacked their cargo on smaller ships as a measure to reduce the risk of being robbed, but the paintings still show the big ships (p. 61). Where possible also the provenance of each painting is indicated.

Alexandra Curvelo, Nanban folding screen masterpieces. Japan-Portugal XVIIth century, Paris: Chandeigne, 2016. 176 pages, color illustrations. ISBN 9782367321219.