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Exhibitions/ Storytelling in Japanese Art

Storytelling in Japanese Art

November 19, 2011–May 6, 2012

Exhibition Overview

Welcome to the endlessly fascinating world of Japanese storytelling. Japan has a long and rich history of pairing narrative texts with elaborate illustrations—a tradition that continues to this day with manga and other popular forms of animation. Featuring more than sixty works of art in a range of mediums and formats, this exhibition invites you to explore myriad subjects that have preoccupied the Japanese imagination for centuries—Buddhist and Shinto miracle tales; the romantic adventures of legendary heroes and their feats at times of war; animals and fantastical creatures that cavort within the human realm; and the ghoulish antics of ghosts and monsters.

From illustrated books and folding screens to textiles and even playing cards, the objects on view, which date from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, vividly capture the life and spirit of their time. Central to our exploration of this subject is the illustrated handscroll, or emaki, a narrative format that is essential not only to the dissemination of Japanese tales but also to the very ways in which they are crafted. The more than twenty handscrolls on view in the galleries demonstrate the many ways in which the pictorial space of the emaki is designed to draw viewers directly into a story, offering a rare opportunity for visitors of all ages to experience the pleasures and intellectual challenges inherent in Japanese narrative painting.

Narrative Flow: Muromachi Tales and the Handscroll Format

Japanese storytelling reached its apogee during the Nanbokuchō and Muromachi periods (1336–1573). The more than four hundred tales that emerged during the Muromachi period are known collectively as otogi zōshi. Ranging widely in theme, from religious parables to capricious fables, these short, often didactic stories are a world apart from the courtly romantic tales of the Heian period (794–1185), the heyday of aristocratic society. Many of the plots stem from the epics of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), a time of marked military ascendancy and the rise of a powerful warrior class.

Contributing significantly to the development and dissemination of otogi zōshi was the handscroll, a major vehicle for painting and writing throughout East Asia. Illustrated handscrolls, or emaki (picture scrolls), first emerged in Japan in the eighth century. They generally measure about one foot high and can extend for more than thirty feet. Emaki are meant to be unrolled laterally, from right to left, and read in sequential segments of about two feet each. Usually, text sections are interspersed with images, with the narrative preceding the related illustration. A scroll is unrolled with the left hand, while the right hand rolls the part already viewed, allowing the story to emerge from the left and disappear to the right. With the freedom to move through the scenes at his or her own pace, the viewer physically experiences the progression of time and space as the past is rolled away, the present is slowly uncovered, and the future waits to be seen.

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The exhibition is made possible by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation.

Additional support is provided by the Japan Foundation.