Arguably as important to Japanese culture as the Bible has been to Western culture, The Tale of Genji has spurred the imaginations of artists and calligraphers since the work was written some 1,000 years ago.
Drawing on its own collection as well as major loans from Japan and across the U.S., The Met’s The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated explores the singular influence of this book, showing how a literary source can appeal to visual artists generation after generation, century after century.
A work of courtly romance that follows a young man as he sets out to find the ideal woman, Genji was written by a Japanese noblewoman known as Murasaki Shikibu. Her text was in circulation among high-ranking readers by 1020—and familiarity with and enjoyment of Genji quickly became a marker of aristocratic sophistication. The author herself became an object of reverence, with artists depicting Murasaki in the style of a contemplative bodhisattva (see image at top), or inflected with Confucian notions of hard work and virtue.
The novel’s text provides a vivid, detailed depiction of court life during the mid-Heian imperial period (794–1185)—yet artists had no problem updating their interpretations of scenes to reflect contemporaneous styles of dress, architecture, and personal presentation. This ultimate account of life at court thus served as a catalyst for a visual record of the courtly arts spanning centuries and imperial periods.
Scenes from Genji adorned the most precious luxury objects for aristocratic patrons. Scrolls, fans, and other such objects often formed part of wedding trousseaux—bringing this beloved and often wry novel of courtship into the households of elite young couples. To this day, this omnipresent pillar of Japanese culture continues to inspire artists, even as newer influences from far afield enter the scene.
The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated will be on display at The Met Fifth Avenue through June 16. Purchase the sumptuous catalogue that accompanies the exhibition at store.metmuseum.org.