Murasaki Shikubu Gazing at the Moon (detail). Tosa Mitsuoki (1607–1691). Hanging scroll (ink and color on silk), 33 7/8 x 18 15/16 in.; Edo Period (1615–1868). Ishiyamadera Temple, Otsu, Shiga Prefecture
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1,000 Years of “Genji”

A landmark new exhibition at The Met considers the extraordinary influence of a classic of Japanese literature

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. 

Scenes and calligraphic excerpts from The Tale of Genji. Calligraphy by Ono no Ōzu (Ono Otsū) (Japanese, 1559–1631); paintings attributed to Tosa Mitsuyoshi (Japanese, 1539–1613). Pair of albums: ink and color on paper (painting), ink on gold decorated paper (calligraphy); each leaf: 11 5/8 × 10 5/8 in., Momoyama (1573–1615)–Edo period (1615–1868). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection, Gift of Mary and Cheney Cowles, 2018 (2018.853.39a–d)

 

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.

Portrait-Icon of Murasaki Shikubu. Kano Minenobu (1662–1709); calligraphy attributed to Konoe Ichiro (1667–1736). Hanging scroll: ink and color on silk; 44 7/16 x 21 9/16; 17th century, Edo Period (1615–1868). Ishiyamadera Temple, Otsu, Shiga Prefecture

 

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.

“Butterflies,” Chapter 24 from The Tale of Genji. Japanese, Momoyama period (1573–1615). Six-panel folding screen; ink, color, gold, and gold leaf on paper; 65 in. × 12 ft. 3/4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015 (2015.300.32)

 

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.

The Tale of Genji. Attributed to Kaihō Yūsetsu (Japanese, 1598–1677). Set of two handscrolls; ink and color on paper; 9 7/16 in. × 63 ft. 8 9/16 in.; 17th century, Edo period (1615–1868). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015 (2015.300.38a, b)

 

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. 

“Ukifune’s attempt to drown herself, inspired by the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais,” from The Tale of Genji: Fleeting Dreams. Yamato Waki (born 1948). Matted paintings: ink and color on paper; 14 1/2 x 20 11/16 in.; 1992. Collection of the artist (© Yamato Waki)

 

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.

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