Wed, Jun 24, 2020

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: Fans as decorative motif in works of art

Fans by Katsushika Hokusai
Edo Period, dated 1849
Tokyo National Museum; ColBase (

As museums remain closed, instead of discussing an exhibition of Japanese art as I had been hoping to, I thought I would share a few thoughts on fans, not only as an object but also as a decorative motif. Over the years, while looking at Japanese art, I was struck by the fact that fans can be not only a support for artistic creation but also a motif or subject for it.

Since ancient times many civilisations around the world have put handheld fans to a variety of uses, from cooling devices to ceremonial objects and from performance props to status symbols, among others.

In Asia, the fan most likely originated in China and spread from there to Japan. It is thought that the folding fan was invented in Japan, sometime around the 7th century. At first reserved for the emperor and then the court, fans became very fashionable and gradually came to be used by other classes of society. Fans, whatever their type, can of course be decorated on their surface; indeed, they grew to be an important media for painting. They could also be the support for calligraphy and poems. Fans feature in Noh theatre, counting among the few devices used onstage and employed for accentuating the expressiveness of the actors’ gestures.

Noh fan with design of aged pine, cranes and tortoise on gold ground
Edo period, 18th century
Tokyo National Museum; ColBase (

Renowned Japanese artists composed works on fans, chief among them Tawaraya Sotatsu (c. 1570-1640) and Ogata Korin (1658-1716). Such creations were highly appreciated and often removed from their frames to be mounted on albums or paintings. With the development of woodblock printing in the Edo period, prints designed to be mounted on rigid fans became fashionable. In the same way, decorated fans were also greatly popular in the West and artists such as Ingres and Corot in the 19th century painted on fans.

All these fans are beautiful objects, but I am particularly charmed by the distinct fondness that Japanese artists have shown for the fan as a decorative motif. The ornamental effect of the fan, with its distinctive rounded shape and tapered extremity, can be admired on numerous works of art. Placed against the gold background of folding screens, sequences of fans each animated by their own design, are very pleasing decorative patterns. Moreover, these scattered fan motifs can allow the artist to integrate smaller, secondary themes within the general composition. In the work below by the school of Sotatsu, the fans feature landscapes or scenes from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of Ise.

Folding screen, Sotatsu school
Edo period, 17th century
Tokyo National Museum; ColBase (

Fans can appear on textiles too. They were used as a decorative motif on kimono, the pattern of an open fan being perceived as auspicious. In countless designs, fans are scattered with other motifs, such as flowers, plants or stylised forms. The association of several shapes that are repeated and be can quite contrasting with each other on the garment surface is always very stylish, often quite audacious.

They are to be found on Noh costume as well, for example on a striking Edo period Noh robe decorated with motifs of poetry cards and fans among trailing wisteria (Museum of Fine Arts in Boston).

Very attractive as well are fan-shaped ceramics, a type of dishes typical of the Oribe style of pottery which favours inventive shapes and patterns. Used for entertaining and therefore produced in sets, these enchantingly shaped ceramics appeared in the 17th century. Featuring the green glaze that typifies Oribe ware, they can be admired from a variety of angles.

Set of fan-shaped dishes
Ceramics, Mino ware, Oribe type
Edo Period, 17th century
Tokyo National Museum; ColBase (
Set of fan-shaped food cups
Ceramics, Mino ware, Oribe type
Edo Period, 17th century
Tokyo National Museum; ColBase (

The artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) took the motif of the fan as a theme. A painting by his hand (top photo; Tokyo National Museum) shows an array of fans rhythmically arranged. Opened at various angles and featuring an assortment of decorative patterns delicately rendered, they make for an attractive still life composition. It is moving to know that Hokusai painted this work on silk during the last year of his life.

It is interesting to note that in turn, under the influence of ‘Japonisme’ at the end of the 19th century, fans became an inspiring decorative motif for Western artists and in a way emblematic of Japan.

Today in Japan, fan motifs still feature prominently on seasonal greeting cards. To my eye, the fan motif is an illustration of the dynamism of Japanese aesthetics and its ability to transform something from everyday into a dazzling decoration.



Art Historian


Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)



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