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Artist unknown, folding screen with nō performance, mid Edo period, 18th century, National Noh Theatre

Nō paintings

The illustration of nō and kyōgen performances can be divided into two main groups. Works belonging to the first group depict the stage with the entire ensemble of actors and musicians performing before the audience. They provide valuable information on the social context of nō theatre. The second group constitutes handscrolls and albums portraying key scenes from nō and kyōgen plays. The standard composition for this type shows the main characters set against a blank background.

These artfully conceived works were commissioned by major nō patrons from the military aristocracy during the Edo period (1615–1868). They served as study materials or commemorated important one-day programs that generally consisted of various nō plays and kyōgen interludes. Executed by professional painters or specialised workshops, these handscrolls and albums were treasured as artworks in their own right.

Questions and activities

  • Design a theatre poster for a school play. Choose a key moment or scene from the play to illustrate in your design. As a class, display your posters around the school and gather feedback on how effective they are.
  • Create a diorama of a scene depicted in one of the nō paintings in the exhibition. Compare the effect of the scene in 2D and 3D. What challenges did you face making the diorama? What materials and techniques seemed to be the most successful? Discuss.