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Exhibitions/ The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated/ Exhibition Galleries

The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated

At The Met Fifth Avenue
March 5–June 16, 2019

Exhibition Galleries

This exhibition celebrates the spectacular artistic tradition inspired by The Tale of Genji, a monument of world literature created in the early eleventh century, and traces the evolution and reception of its imagery through the following ten centuries.

The author, the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, centered her narrative on a protagonist she calls "radiant Genji" (hikaru Genji), the son of an emperor who is demoted to commoner status and thereby disqualified from ever ascending the throne. With an insatiable desire to recover his lost standing, Genji seeks out countless amorous encounters with women who might help him revive his imperial lineage.

Readers have long reveled in the amusing accounts of Genji's romantic liaisons and in the dazzling descriptions of the courtly splendor of the Heian period (794–1185). The tale has been equally appreciated, however, as social and political commentary, aesthetic theory, Buddhist philosophy, a behavioral guide, and a source of insight into human nature. Offering much more than romance, The Tale of Genji proved meaningful not only for men and women of the aristocracy but also for Buddhist adherents and institutions, military leaders and their families, and merchants and townspeople.

The galleries of the exhibition present the full spectrum of Genji-related works of art created for diverse patrons by the most accomplished Japanese artists of the past millennium. The exhibition also sheds new light on the tale's author and her female characters, and on the women readers, artists, calligraphers, and commentators who played a crucial role in ensuring the continued relevance of this classic text.

The manuscripts, paintings, calligraphy, and decorative arts on display demonstrate sophisticated and surprising interpretations of the story that promise to enrich our understanding of Murasaki's tale today.

The first gallery conveys what it was like to hold The Tale of Genji in one's hands and how the text itself—comprising fifty-four chapters and containing 795 waka poems—came to be regarded as an aesthetic object.

Through the centuries, illuminated manuscript versions of the tale in handscroll, booklet, and album formats were cherished for both their meticulous paintings and their elegant transcriptions of the texts, especially the poetry, by famous calligraphers of every era.

Calligraphy was considered one of the supreme arts in premodern East Asia, and every educated person was expected to write fluently with a flexible-tip brush. The appearance of one’s handwriting was a sign of good upbringing and aesthetic refinement.

During the Heian period (794–1185), courtly calligraphic styles emerged both for kanji (Chinese characters) and for the distinctive Japanese form of phonetic writing called kana (or onna-de, the "women’s hand"). The Tale of Genji was written in kana calligraphy, since it belonged to a genre of fiction called monogatari (literally, "speaking of things") that was rooted in an oral storytelling tradition and firmly associated with women's writing. Kana calligraphy of the Heian court is typified by graceful and smoothly flowing strands of Japanese characters. 


A beautiful legend describes how the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu began writing The Tale of Genji during a visit to Ishiyamadera, a Buddhist temple southeast of Kyoto, where she was inspired by the glittering reflection of the full moon on Lake Biwa and the divine powers of the bodhisattva Kannon. Paintings of the author by artists of virtually every school have reimagined this pivotal moment in the tale’s genesis.

The altar at the center of this gallery is adorned with ceremonial objects borrowed from Ishiyamadera, surrounded by precious works of art from the temple's storeroom. By the fourteenth century, the Main Hall of the temple featured a so-called Genji Room (above), and the mountainside temple remains a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site to this day.

The tale's relationship to Buddhism appears not only in its narrative content but also in rituals intended to sanctify the tale, prayers for the author's salvation, and even the worship of her as a manifestation of Kannon.

Artists began illustrating The Tale of Genji soon after it was written by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century.

To represent the complex, lengthy tale and its numerous waka poems, many artists and their patrons took a modular approach, creating sets of Genji paintings that included one image and one text as emblematic of each of the tale's fifty-four chapters.

An iconography was soon established that allowed viewers to recognize important scenes, including the protagonist Genji's first glimpse of the character Murasaki, who becomes his lifelong companion; Genji's stunning dance performance with his brother-in-law and rival, Tō no Chūjō, beneath the autumn leaves; and, near the end of the tale, the young woman Ukifune crossing the Uji River by boat with her lover, Prince Niou, Genji's grandson.

Despite this common visual language, however, Genji paintings have demonstrated tremendous variety over the past millennium, delighting viewers with unexpected variations that reflect a range of artistic visions, functions, and changes in how the tale has been read during different eras.

In Chapter 21 of the tale, Genji constructs the Rokujō estate, a kind of ersatz imperial court, where he installs the women most important to him in four separate quadrants outfitted with spectacular gardens and artificial lakes. The architecture and seasonal landscapes of Rokujō function in rich symbolic ways in the narrative, creating a backdrop for depictions of the elegant courtly activities that came to epitomize Genji's refinement and prosperity. Scenes from chapters set at Rokujō at the height of Genji's glory, therefore, figure prominently in bridal trousseaux and works of art made for auspicious occasions.

The main building of an aristocratic residence is called the shinden. The central core (moya) is surrounded by aisles (hisashi) and by outer aisles called magobisashi (literally, "grandchild aisles"). These buildings, which employ post and lintel construction with non-load-bearing walls, had open floor plans that used sliding doors, bamboo blinds, curtains, furnishings, and folding screens (byōbu) or partitioning screens (tsuitate shōji) to divide space and create privacy. People sat on wooden floors on round mats made of straw or sedge (enza) or on woven straw floor coverings (tatami).

The Met's Shoin Room was made in present-day Kyoto, following traditional production techniques and based on early seventeenth-century architectural styles. The room has been outfitted with bamboo blinds (misu) and a portable curtain on a freestanding frame (kichō), which prevented royal women from being viewed directly by men and passersby. A courtier's costume is also on view. When painting scenes from the tale, artists sometimes attempted to capture the archaic settings and costumes of the Heian court, but in most cases, they also used Edo-period garments and architectural elements in their compositions, resulting in anachronistic settings.

The Tale of Genji shaped the way members of elite classes engaged with the world and conducted their lives.

The Edo period (1615–1868) is considered the golden age for lacquers, textiles, and metalwork with Genji decoration, reflecting the important role the tale played in the bridal trousseaux of daimyo weddings and the auspicious meanings associated with its scenes. Several lacquer items from wedding sets are featured in this exhibition, including an exquisite palanquin made for the shogun's wife.

Genji motifs appeared on garments for aristocrats, high-ranking samurai ladies, and wealthy merchant-class women. The tale inspired Noh plays, and costumes for these were produced with related designs. Incense utensils and games as well as musical instruments were also associated with the story, sparking the creation of amusements such as shell-matching and card games based on the fifty-four chapters.

A number of these works of art portray scenes set at Genji's spectacular Rokujō estate, where he housed the various important women in his life in different seasonal quadrants to live in harmony amid magnificent gardens. Although Murasaki's complex tale makes it clear that Rokujō does not always resemble paradise, these objects created for auspicious occasions presented Genji's realm as an idyllic arcadia.

These galleries present large-format screen paintings that depict scenes from The Tale of Genji, demonstrating how chambers in the residences of wealthy patrons could be transformed into Genji rooms. Such works offered panoramic vistas, creating an immersive environment of Genji imagery by portraying only one or two scenes across all twelve panels of a folding screen. Patrons selected the scenes with great care, choosing images with narrative content that spoke to their contemporary concerns. This holds true for views of domestic harmony commissioned for bridal trousseaux, as well as for scenes of Genji in exile on the Suma coast, requested by men who had experienced political exile in their own pasts. The monumental screens could thus function both as aesthetic objects that illustrate beloved moments from the Heian tale and as visual memoirs for historical figures who saw their lives mirrored in the world of Genji.

While Genji paintings are rightly associated with bright colors and glittering gold, some of the most appealing works in the history of Genji illustrations are paintings in monochrome ink.

Narrative paintings in the ink-line (hakubyō) mode eschew color in favor of linear compositions that spotlight the rhythmic quality of the line as it thins and thickens, punctuated by patches of dark ink, and that use the paper’s unpainted white ground as a positive element of the composition. This mode of representation was associated early on with skilled amateur artists and salons for women.

Numerous Genji paintings survive from the sixteenth century on small scrolls that fit comfortably in the hand. Likely executed by and for women, they often represent unique scenes and motifs that offer insights into how communities of medieval female readers understood and shared the tale—sometimes by reading the text aloud.

A highly crafted form of Japanese ink-line drawing created by professional artists emerged during the early Edo period. So too did an approach that blended the aesthetic sensibility and techniques of Chinese-style painting (kanga) with those of Japanese-style painting (yamato-e), creatively employing ink wash, gold paint, and pigmentation to develop a new and powerful mode of Genji painting.

The archaic language in which The Tale of Genji was originally written became increasingly inaccessible to readers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and readers relied on translations into modern Japanese and Western languages. Yet artists continued to use traditional imagery from the tale as grist for new pictorial interpretations. In the 1880s and early 1890s, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi translated ancient iconography into an ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") style, focusing on a single figure. In the early twentieth century, Tanaka Shinbi created remarkably faithful copies of both the paintings and text sections of the twelfth-century Tale of Genji Scrolls, inspiring contemporary artists to look at ancient art through new eyes. Artists working in the idiom of modern Japanese-style painting, or Nihonga, re-created iconic scenes using a surprising new palette and scale to meet the demands of emerging public forms of display. Genji continued to function as a touchstone in the modern era for artists who combined traditional techniques and subjects with approaches from Western art, while reflecting the new ways the tale was read and politicized in the twentieth century.

From the seventeenth century onward, visual representations of The Tale of Genji responded to Edo urbanity, emerging printing technologies, and commercial culture to usher in a new era of Genji arts. The first illustrated printed books of the tale appeared in 1650, resulting in an unprecedented level of readership, and a host of popular editions and commentaries soon followed.

The Edo period (1615–1868) was also the age of the Genji parody, and examples abound of delightful, often humorous ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") that place the novel's characters in contemporary scenarios. Early ukiyo-e artists, such as Hishikawa Moronobu, represented the characters of the story as courtesans, and a century later Chōbunsai Eishi began creating even more elaborate representations of court ladies as courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. Utagawa Kuniyoshi superimposed images from Kabuki plays onto vignettes from the classic tale. At the end of the Edo period, the popular spoof written by Ryūtei Tanehiko, A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Rustic Genji (Nise Murasaki inaka Genji, 1829–42), spawned a new genre of popular prints.

One of the most remarkable developments of Genji imagery in contemporary times is the emergence of numerous manga versions of the tale.

Dreams at Dawn (Asaki yumemishi), a multivolume interpretation by the female artist Yamato Waki, surpasses the others in its artistry and attention to the historical details and literary features of the original. Yamato's manga translation has made the ancient tale accessible to a new generation of readers. The artist uses the visual idiom of girls' comics (shōjo manga)—such as figures characterized by slender physiques, sharp features, and large eyes—as well as the full range of storytelling strategies of the comic form. In terms of their narrative content, shōjo manga emphasize romantic relationships and heightened emotions in stories told from a woman’s perspective.

On display is a series of original colored manga drawings that Yamato created, mostly between 1979 and 1993, as the basis for color frontispieces and inserts in the black-and-white manga, as well as a video showing her artistic process. The paintings, which consist of individual character studies, prompted Yamato to explore the narrative arc, psychology, and motivations of each figure in new ways. In conjunction with the exhibition, a new online English-language version of the manga—originally called The Tale of Genji: Fleeting Dreams—was released by Kodansha, Ltd., in February 2019, with a revised subtitle: Dreams at Dawn.

Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691). Portrait-Icon of Murasaki Shikibu. Edo Period (1615–1868), 17th century. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; 35 5/8 x 20 3/4 in. (90.5 x 52.7 cm). Ishiyamadera Temple, Shiga Prefecture, Courtesy of Ishiyamadera Temple, photo by Kanai Morio