A remarkable and very rare late Edo silk kicho, featuring a trained tethered falcon on an ornate wood rod-and-textile stand. The condition is very good, with several light smudges throughout, and one 1cm tear near the bottom right background. 53” x 56”. 'Kicho' literally 'curtain of state'. Popular during the Heian era (794-1190), the kicho served the purpose as a screen concealing noblewomen from prying eyes: the preferred location of the kicho was near the veranda, and it is recorded that the moment of commitment of a love Heian love affair often occurred when the lady permitted a gentleman behind her kicho. The color and ornamentation of the kicho varied with the seasons and the material used is the best the household could afford. It is known that the nobles competed with each other over the artistic values of these screens. Often a number of kichos would be strung together to form a larger partition, with the many sections allowing a flexible shape. This kicho (item 2481) is constructed of four silk panels joined by a fine braided rope, with wood stick supports and brass hanging eyelets at the top. The screen depicts a large white trained falcon perched and tethered on an richly-adorned "daiboko" (man-made perch) with accompanying "hokodare" (gold-threaded brocade silk screen hanging down from the perch).
In Japan, records indicate that falconry began in the fourth century. Buddhist temples, who were also land owners, opposed falconry based on their ideology against killing. Falconer lords, on the other hand, devised a Buddhist rationale or resorted to Shinto justifications. The sport became a status symbol, a very expensive pastime. With the beginning of the Edo period in the 17th century, falconry evolved into one of the primary outlets for the militaristic energies of the samurai and nobility class. Falcons were revered for their ferocity, regal quality, and directness of action, and symbolized the soul of the owner. As the visibility and popularity of falconry grew during the Edo period many falcon-related paintings were commissioned by samurai and other nobility: images of the hunt and especially portraits of favored individual birds depicted tethered to a stand. These falcon portraits of the Edo period evolved from stereotypes into personal portraits to memorize ones birds, which was a phenomenon probably unique to East Asia, reflecting great affection of shoguns and lords to hawking partners.
Portraits of individual trained falcons include "Falcon" by Hasegawa Tohaku (first years of 17th c); Kano Eiun (mid-17th c); Hakuin Sekkei (early 18th c); Itaya Keishic (18th c); "Falcons on Perches" by Sumiyoshi Keishu (1789); Ryuryukyo Shinsai (early 19th c); Totoya Hokkei (circa about 1815-1820); Votive Panel of Hawk, 1820, by Doi Toshiatu; as well as at least two art-pieces by Katsushika Hokusai - "Falcon and Cherry Blossom" (1832-3) and "Falcon", which is perhaps the closest in imagery to what we find on this kicho. The Tokyo National Museum has an Edo 18th c kosode that has yuzen-dyed depiction of a falcon perched on a folding screen, and we have in the gallery a boys ceremonial baptism kimono (item 2767) - the only two extant textiles we are aware of besides this kicho of a tethered falcon theme.
The prominent oak branches on this textile are auspicious as well: since ancient times the oak (kashiwa) leaf was used as a kind of dish on which to serve things, and from this it soon became associated with offerings to the gods, and by the late Heian period the oak tree was regarded as the residence of the protective deities of forests and groves. Many techniques are involved: the oak leaves are of paint and gold foil; the falcon is hand-painted and embroidered, while the kicho is yuzen-dyed, with the addition of simple embroidery, metallic couching and braiding, and sagara embroidery. The entire effect is one of subtlety and sophistication.
I have not come across any references to any extant authentic kichos - not in private or museum hands - during my years involved in collecting Japanese textiles. Neither Sotheby's or Christies has offered a kicho over the past ten years. The various Japanese museums do not list any kicho within their on-line collections. I have seen one or two older examples that were created from sections of old kimonos - I don't know if they were authentically ever utilized as a kicho. My feeling is that there indeed must be at least a few other old extant kicho somewhere in the world, perhaps in a private collection. Notwithstanding the fact that kicho were often depicted in Edo and Meiji artworks -both textile and non-textile - it is assumed that not many such curtains were actually created during the Edo and Meiji periods. Rather, the relevant Edo and Meiji artworks referred to subject matter of the revered 'golden age' of Japanese culture, the Heian period, of a thousand years ago. Considering the subject-matter and high-artistry, as well as the fact that kicho were very popular among the nobility of the Heian period but not recent centuries - suggest that this kicho was a rare 'revival' artwork commissioned by a very wealthy and important Japanese noble family.