Aesthetics / Art / Asia / Thoughts

On Scrolls


If you hear a piece of music many times or you look at a picture all the time, it may start to wear off. As I have pointed out in a previous article (see On Beauty), I think that the experience of beauty depends on discovering new structures. If you expose yourself to a work of art for a long time, you will eventually know every note or every brush stroke. You will still perceive it, but the feeling of beauty will wane.

In Western culture, people are used to hang pictures into their everyday environment. As a result, you see those pictures every day until you stop noticing them. They fade into the background and finally drop below the threshold of consciousness.

To prevent this, to keep the art works fresh and striking, we should consider removing them and getting them out only at certain occasions. But traditionally, pictures in western culture are framed, making them bulky, so storing them away is difficult. Many artists paint on canvas that is stretched on a frame, or on boards. Even if they paint on paper, this is often framed or put behind glass.

East Asian cultures have developed a quite different tradition of how to deal with paintings. The typical material for painting in this tradition is paper. The paper, after being painted or used for calligraphy, was mounted on a textile scroll made, for example, from silk brocade. There are hand scrolls with a long, horizontal painting that can be viewed bit by bit by scrolling and there are hanging scrolls. Hanging scrolls are displayed for a limited time, e.g. for a season, for a celebration or for a cha no yu ceremony. After their display time is over, they are rolled up again for storage in a library and may be replaced by something else.

Maybe this way of displaying art should be taken up by western artists. Instead of the stretched canvases and framed pictures we are used to, painters and graphics artists might pay more attention to formats meant for temporary viewing or temporary display and easy and more compact storage, like scrolls, folders, albums or books.

On the side of the viewer or collector, this might be complemented by developing a culture of deliberately reserving time and space for viewing art. Instead of covering the walls of our houses with pictures that then slowly fade from our attention, we might have a special place, like the tokonoma in traditional Japanese interior design, where selected works or art are displayed for a limited time.

In medieval times in Western culture, paintings were typically wall paintings or paintings on boards hanging in places like churches. Later, paintings took up functions for representation purposes of the nobility and of the emerging bourgeoisie. The art format that was developed for such purposes was the large canvas oil painting. But our culture has changed. If our main goal is not representation but just aesthetic appreciation and enjoyment of art, in all its pristine intensity, a format like the temporarily hung scroll painting might be preferable.

(The picture, from, is showing a famous scroll painting of the Japanese painter Sesshu Toyo made in Sumi-e (ink wash painting) technique).

9 thoughts on “On Scrolls

  1. I move the art around in my house. Putting a particular piece in a different room revives it.

    I make artist books and I like to take them out and look at them, and then put them away again. Same as with the mail art I receive – I like to go through my box every so often and take time to look.

    I made an artist book for someone and she later told me she really liked it as a piece of art, because she could take it around and show it to people. I was flattered and touched to hear this.

    • Actually, when I wrote about books in this article, I was thinking about your books that you have recently posted. That is the kind of things I mean. Your mail art is another.

      • Oh, how nice! Thank you for remembering them. I have spent many years making art that always had one of its purposes to be sold, so I was always conscious of the form of it, as you wrote about. People do think of art as something to be put up and never changed again. But now that I am getting older I am more interested in alternative forms of art, and I don’t worry about selling it anymore – keep it myself or give it away as much as anything else.

        I enjoyed your article.

  2. This is wonderful. When I paint I am constantly rotating in all directions. I feel that when the receiver carries on with the finished work deciding which way to hang, it somehow includes them in the creative process. But then sometimes a painting dictates its own placement. I love the idea of revisiting a piece with fresh eyes. Thank you.

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