The origin of the paravent, or folding screen, leads us to China in the late Chou dynasty, between the fourth and third century before Christ. Here is where we find the first written reference to a folding screen. The Chinese considered screens as objects of contemplation and a source of spiritual and creative inspiration.
New forms and functions for the screen emerged in Japan, where as a cultural import from China it gained considerable popularity. The Japanese folding screen, differently than the Chinese—which was characterized by certain monumentality and heaviness—was delicate and light, and found a multiplicity of uses in everyday life. In Japanese homes three different varieties of screens were to be found: placed at the entrance the screen served to guard against evil influences. There was also the fusuma, a sliding screen, and finally the byobu, literally “protection against the wind”, a folding screen made of several panels.
The folding screen developed independently in Europe. In the Middle Ages, screens, as indeed indicated by the French word ‘paravent’, served to deter unwelcome drafts. When one recalls the proportions of Medieval halls and rooms it is clear why people of the time sought both to protect themselves against the cold and create more intimacy in their living areas.
The folding screen, however, received its decisive impulse from East Asia, when it reached Europe in the sixteenth century. In the meeting of cultures which followed the opening of the sea route to the Orient, the Jesuits played a significant role, and they also used the paravent as a medium to transport European culture.
The earliest extant European screens date to the late seventeenth century. Many early examples are imitations of the famed Chinese coromandel screens, which were made of embossed leather. Later, the screen was adapted to different styles to match a room’s furnishings.
Worthy of mention is the functional significance of the screen as part of the Baroque levee, as portrayed in operas such as The Marriage of Figaro and Der Rosenkavalier. The screen has long served as an indispensable prop for amorous comedies in both theatre and film.
Until about 1880 wall screens were with a few exceptions produced by anonymous craftsmen and artists, and were looked upon as another piece of furniture. Later, as the screen increasingly lost its original, practical function, it began to attract the attention of many well-known artists. Paul Cezanne, for example, created a painted six-paneled wall screen. The screen was also a vehicle of artistic expression for Paul Klee and Marc Chagall, who created a design produced in hundreds of copies by lithography.
A significant impulse in the evolution of the folding screen was the architectural concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century, as well as a new trend in design and interior decoration that had its focus in France. The expression and high point of this trend was the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which took place in Paris in 1925. This was the first international fair to be devoted to the applied arts.
One protagonist of this trend was Eileen Gray (1879-1976), who began her impressive career as designer and architect by designing screens. Her best known works are her lacquered screens.
New and fruitful was the close working relationship which developed between architects, designers, craftsmen, and artists. Members of this generation included, for example, Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941), the gifted Parisian decorator of the twenties and thirties, who is still today worshipped by art deco enthusiasts. There are a number of folding screens known to have been created by Frank, some of which were the result of his co-operation with artists such as Diego Giacometti and Salvador Dalí.
Today, screens continue to be produced by contemporary designers, and there has been a renaissance of interest internationally.
In addition to the encounter of different cultures, a psychological factor accounts for much of the attraction of the folding screen: the concealment of certain perspectives from the viewer. The hidden, that which can be discerned only by its outlines, invariably exercises a fascination difficult to resist.
Source: Janet Woodbury Adams, Decorative Folding Screens in the West from 1600 to the present, New York, 1982