The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
March 5 - June 16, 2019
Reviewed by Ed Voves
In Western literary circles, The Tale of Genji has gained renown as the world's first novel. There is a degree of truth to bestowing this honor on the author, Lady Murasaki Shikibu. The prize, however, could just as legitimately be given to The Golden Ass by Apuleius, written almost a thousand years before.
First or not, The Tale of Genji is one of the world's great books. Written some years after 1000 AD, during the Heian period of Japanese history (794-1185 AD), The Tale of Genji or Genji Monogatari is worthy of many superlatives. It can be viewed as a magnificent novel, an anthology of inspired poetry, a guide to religious reflection and the foundation of Japan's indigenous literature and art.
The Tale of the Genji is the kind of cultural phenomenon that really needs to be studied in such a manner that all the various facets of its genius can be analyzed together. Not an easy task to be sure but one which is best approached by mounting an exhibition where word and image may be viewed together. In the case of Genji Monogatari, word and image need to be considered together.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Tale of Genji exhibit, showing Tosa Mitsuoki's Portrait-Icon of Murasaki Shikibu, 17th century
Surprisingly, no Western museum has ever presented a major exhibition to achieve both a wide-angle and a detailed focus on this Japanese classic. Until now. Unsurprisingly, it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City which has boldly taken up the task.
Legend has it that Lady Murasaki traveled to the Buddhist temple of Ishiyamadera, about a day's journey from Kyoto, the capital of Japan. This temple, which still exists, overlooks Lake Biwa. There on the night of the full moon of August 1004, Lady Murasaki was moved to write about Hikaru Genji. Her novel recounted the loves and adventures of the "Shining Prince", deprived of his royal inheritance despite a Korean soothsayer's prediction of his coming greatness.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Statue of the Dainichi Nyorai, Supreme Buddha of the Cosmos, on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's The Tale of Genji exhibition
The Metropolitan Museum curators have recreated the altar of the Ishiyamadera Temple with devotional works from this sacred site. The center piece of the altar is a sculpture from the Met's own collection, dating to the twelfth century, not long after Lady Murasaki's lifetime. This is the Dainichi Nyorai or Supreme Buddha of the Cosmos.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Washio Ryūge of the Ishiyamadera Temple
The Met's curators also invited Washio Ryūge, daughter of the head priest of Ishiyamadera Temple and his designated successor, to come to New York. In a profoundly moving (though difficult to photograph) consecration ceremony, she and a group of monks from Ishiyamadera Temple opened the Met's exhibition, The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated.
Over the years, I have been privileged to witness several blessing ceremonies at Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibitions. The consecration for The Tale of Genji exhibition brought to mind the heartfelt prayers addressed to Wankan Tanka, the Great Spirit, at the opening of The Plains Indians, Artists of Earth and Sky exhibit, back in 2015. However different the theological precepts may be, the degree of devotion and the centrality of faith in a supreme being which is manifested at these ceremonies is truly inspiring.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Washio Ryūge leading the consecration ceremony
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's The Tale of Genji exhibition
The plot of Genji Monogatari is almost certainly based on a real event in Japanese history. Two centuries before Lady Murasaki picked up brush and ink to write the story of the "shining" prince, the Emperor Saga (786-842) demoted a number of his many children to the rank of commoner. Court expenditure was reduced and the line of succession simplified.
Emperor Saga's son Minamoto no Toru (822-895) likely served as the inspiration for Murasaki's protagonist. Genji , as we noted, was also excluded from the Imperial succession. And thereby hangs a tale - in fiction and in fact!
A poet and statesman, Minamoto no Toru was awarded a high position in government but was later surpassed in rank by another aristocrat, Fujiwara no Motosune. Genji's estate, Rokujō, was modeled on Minamoto no Toru's lavish mansion and gardens.
From the ranks of the descendants of Minamoto no Toru, a clan arose using his surname. The Minamoto were also known by their family symbol - similar in certain respects to the heraldic badges of the knights of medieval Europe. That clan symbol/name was Genji.
Circle of Tosa Mitsuyoshi, A Lovely Garland (Tamakazura), 17th century
Was "Lady Murasaki" an honorary name bestowed on the author after the book was written? Did readers recognize in her portrayal of the fictional Genji a sympathy for the Minamoto who had been excluded from power? Might it have been a recognition of the writer's political instincts? By the time "Lady Murasaki" wrote The Tale of Genji, the Minamoto (Genji) clan was again a power to be reckoned with.
It is worth asking these questions - which really cannot be conclusively answered - because they underline the fact that the author of Genji Monogatari was an astute observer of the political scene in Japan.
Lady Murasaki was not merely a "women's writer." But a feminine sensibility definitely - and fortunately - is a prominent feature of the book. This is especially true of the nearly 800 waka poems that are an integral part of the story.
The Tale of Genji, as a literary masterpiece, helped to create the Japanese national identity. In the visual arts, the book’s impact was equally profound. The Metropolitan’s exhibition is devoted to tracing how the various incidents of Genji Monogatari inspired Japanese artists from the Heian period right up to today.
If I had to pick one of the art works on view in the Met’s exhibition to illustrate how The Tale of the Genji shaped Japan’s sense of self it would be the six-panel screen painting, Kochō or Butterflies.
Tosa Mitsuyoshi, Kochō or Butterflies, late 16th-early 17th century
Tosa Mitsuyoshi (1539–1613) painted this during the last years of the 1500's or the early 1600’s. This was a very violent era in Japanese history, marked by the disastrous invasion of Korea by the Samurai armies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1592. The aim was to conquer China by marching through Korea, an ironical objective considering the debts that Japanese culture owed to both countries. Following Japan’s retreat from Korea and Hideyoshi’s death, Japan was convulsed by civil war.
So whether this enchanting, ethereal work of art was painted during the futile Korean campaigns or later during the years of civil war, its dreamlike incidents contrasted starkly with the harsh reality of Japan’s political situation.
Not for the first time - or the last - a work of art extolling the sheer delight of living appeared in a time of strife. Tosa Mitsuyoshi's heaven-like setting was something few Japanese people of his era could experience, except through reading Genji Monogatari.
Tosa Mitsuyoshi, Kochō or Butterflies (detail), showing waterbird boat
The panel showing the page girls, dressed as butterflies and kalavinka birds and dancing beneath the cherry blossoms, is stunningly beautiful to behold.
Tosa Mitsuyoshi, Kochō or Butterflies (detail), showing dancing girls,
dressed as butterflies and kalavinka birds
Much more than earthly beauty is involved here. The singing of the kalavinka bird was so melodic that it was held to represent the voice of the Buddha. The event in Lady Murasaki's novel which these exquisite rituals celebrated was the official ceremony of reading Buddhist sutras, sponsored by the Empress.
Tosa Mitsuyoshi's painting is thus a multi-layered representation of Japan's past, present and future. Here we see the bygone Heian golden-era, the contemporary yearning for peace and beauty in time of war, and the vision of harmony-to-come.
Screens painted with episodes from The Tale of Genji were a prominent features of the long period of relative peace which followed the civil wars of the early 1600's. Actually, the Edo era (1603-1868) can more accurately be described as a time of the absence of war than a period of real peace. The regime founded by the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), enforced law and order with the swords of loyal Samurai. The Shogunate also encouraged traditional Japanese art as a form of social control.
The Tale of Genji was the perfect vehicle to supply the approved themes for art of all types and genres. As visitors to The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated exhibit will discover, the Genji Monogatari "brand" could be found on everything from embroidered Noh theater robes to clam shells used in a popular matching game!
The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated is a brilliant exhibition in every respect. John Carpenter, the Met's chief curator of Japanese art, Melissa McCormick, a professor from Harvard who is a leading expert on Genji, and the other scholars involved on this project have worked a special kind of museum magic.
The Met curators have assembled 135 artworks and artifacts to recreate the lost world of Lady Murasaki and to trace her influence on Japanese culture over the centuries that followed. Several of the most precious exhibit objects have been declared Japanese national treasures and have never been displayed outside of Japan.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In an especially effective display, the Metropolitan curators recreated a room in an aristocratic dwelling, complete with bamboo blinds to protect the women of the household from the gaze of passers-by. The objects from this ensemble date to much more recent times - the traditional silk robes of the nobleman were made between 1895 to 1900 - but this brilliant tableau creates a setting where Lady Murasaki would have felt right at home.
The majority of the art objects in The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated are multi-panel screen paintings and scrolls of highly-esteemed calligraphy. Other artists, over the centuries, explored different media to produced exquisite works with Genji themes.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Robe with characters reading Wakamurasaki, 17th century
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Ogata Kenzan's Teabowl with Moonflower,18th century.
Another outstanding piece is a stoneware tea bowl made in the early eighteenth century by Ogata Kenzan, who excelled as a potter as well as a calligrapher. This striking cup refers to Chapter 4 in which Genji meets Yugao, "the Lady of the Evening Faces." The words painted onto the cup are from a love poem written around 1500 but are very much in the romantic spirit of Murasaki's novel.
The Tale of Genji is a "woman's" novel in the emphasis it places on sexual attraction, seduction and ultimately love as plot devices. Genji is denied his heritage as a prince but he never responds with violence. He uses his intellect, charisma and male potency to restore his political fortune.
It should be noted that Minamoto/Genji clan eventually did take up arms in a civil war, in 1185, well over a century after Lady Murasaki died. Genji Monogatari, a "battle of hearts and minds," continued to exercise a positive human sensitivity on Japanese society despite such lapses into bloodshed.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of The Tale of Genji exhibit, showing a handscroll, c.1400, depicting an imaginary competition between Lady Murasaki and poet Ōshikōchi no Mitsune
The contrast between a male-female perspective on life and art was treated in a Japanese literary work from the fifteenth century. On display in the Met's exhibition is a stunning handscroll, created with ink, color pigments, gold and silver on paper. It surveys the competition between great Japanese poets and writers over the ages, much as Jonathan Swift satirized the "battle of ancients and moderns" in The Tale of a Tub,1704.
In this remarkable work of art, which dates to around 1400, Lady Murasaki "duels" with a challenger who had died long before she was born.This is the poet, Ōshikōchi no Mitsune (859–925).
Mitsune had been one of the scholars who had compiled an earlier poetry anthology commissioned by the Japanese government, Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern, around 905. I was especially impressed with the inclusion of the Murasaki-Mitsune "point-counterpoint" because this work had enabled Lady Murasaki's poems to be included in a compendium of poetry. In most literary books, poems written for a novel, like those in Genji Monogatari, were excluded.
This luminous handscroll and its friendly rivalry of ancient and modern, male and female, was created in a time of relative peace for Japan. Later, during the 1500's and early 1600's, Japan was beset with strife and bloody civil wars. The code of the Samurai, exemplified by the revenge-theme saga of The Forty-seven Rōnin, dominated the cultural, as well as the political scene.
The Tale of Genji, however, is a classic example of the "pen" being mightier than the sword. It is a refreshing alternative to the cult of violence that has crowded out expressions of sensitive feeling and subtle reflection from so much of popular culture throughout the world of today.
The Met's Genji exhibition is helping to restore the balance. I felt a real charge of positive human energy, and a heightened awareness of life's possibilities, upon leaving The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated.
Yamato Waki, The Death of Genji, from the manga series
Tale of Genji: Dreams at Dawn, 1989
There was once a time when I would have shuddered at the thought of "comic" books being featured in art exhibitions. No longer. The artistry of Yamato Waki (born 1948) in her 1980's manga series, The Tale of Genji: Dreams at Dawn, created a superb fusion of ancient and modern. Examples of her work are on view in the Met's exhibition - where they belong.
A final point in understanding how Genji has been "illuminated" over a thousand years is that it was originally written in a language which Japanese male writers during the Heian period did not deign to use: their own.
While the noble (male) scholars continued to write in Chinese, women wrote in an early form of their native language called hiragana or "ordinary writing." It was also referred to as onna-de ("woman's hand"). Lady Murasaki was not the first to use "woman's hand" for important literary work. Yet,The Tale of Genji was such a major accomplishment, cherished throughout Japan, that hiragana was embraced for serious writing instead of Chinese.
At the risk of giving away the ending, Genji dies without ever gaining the throne of Japan. But he and Lady Murasaki achieved far more - cultural independence for Japan and immortality for themselves.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Introductory image: Tosa Mitsuoki (Japanese, 1617–1691) Portrait-Icon of Murasaki Shikibu (Detail), 17th century. Medium: Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Lent by Ishiyamadera Temple
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Tale of Genji exhibit, showing Tosa Mitsuoki's Portrait-Icon of Murasaki Shikibu, 17th century. Medium: Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Image: 35 5/8 × 20 3/4 in. (90.5 × 52.7 cm) Overall with mounting: 66 9/16 × 26 7/16 in. (169 × 67.1 cm). Lent by Ishiyamadera Temple
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Photo of the Statue of Dainichi Nyorai, Supreme Buddha of the Cosmos, 12th century. Wood with gold leaf and lacquer decoration from the collection of Metropoltan Museum of Art. Accession Number: 26.118
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Washio Ryūge of the Ishiyamadera Temple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 4, 2019.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Washio Ryūge leading the consecration ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's The Tale of Genji exhibition, March 4, 2019.
Circle of Tosa Mitsuyoshi (Japanese, 1539–1613) A Lovely Garland (Tamakazura), 17th century. Medium: Album leaves mounted as a pair of hanging scrolls; ink, gold, silver, and color on pape. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession Number: 2015.300.33a, b
Tosa Mitsuyoshi (Japanese, 1539–1613 ) Kochō or Butterflies, late 16th-early 17th century. Six-panel folding screen. Ink, color, gold, and gold leaf on paper: 65 in. × 12 ft. 3/4 in. (165.1 × 367.7 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mary Griggs Burke Collection, Gift of the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, 2015 Accession Number:2015.300.32
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Tale of Genji, A Japanese Classic Illuminated exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo shows an ensemble of artifacts, evoking traditional Japanese culture created after 1895. Metropolitan Museum of Art collection.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Robe (Furisode) with Maple Tree, Bamboo Fence, and Characters from “Little Purple Gromwell” (Wakamurasaki), late 17th century. White silk satin with silk-thread embroidery and gold-thread couching. Lent by the Tokyo National Museum.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Tale of Genji exhibit, showing a 15th handscroll depicting the imaginary competition between Lafy Murasaki Shikibu and the poet Ōshikōchi no Mitsune. This handscroll is one of a pair, created with ink, color, gold, and silver on paper. It is on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the John C. Weber Collection.
Yamato Waki, (Japanese, born 1948) The Death of Genji, the Empty Chapter in Murasaki’s Tale, from the manga series The Tale of Genji: Dreams at Dawn,1989. Matted painting; ink and color on paper: Overrall: 14 11/16 × 10 3/4 in. (37.3 × 27.3 cm) (Current mat window): 13 3/4 × 10 3/16 in. (34.9 × 25.9 cm). Credit Line:Lent by the Artist. Rights and Reproduction: Asaki Yumemishi © Yamato Waki