unsigned , 18th century
Tale of Genji
a pair of six-panel screens depicting twelve selected chapters from the epic novel, Genji Monogatari (lit. The Tale of the 'Shining Prince'); 18th century, ink, color, gofun, and gold leaf on paper
each screen approximately: 42 3/4 by 108 5/8 in., 108.5 by 276 cm
Unlike the first screen, on the second screen the chapters are not in chronological order. On the lower right hand corner, chapter 9, Aoi (Heartvine), Lady Aoi's back is toward us and we can see the heartvine motif on her gorgeous robes. Although Aoi is struggling with a difficult pregnancy with Genji's son (Yugiri), Genji is much taken with his ward, the young Murasaki, who he adopted at the end of chapter 5. In this scene, Genji trims Murasaki's hair while she stands on a go board in preparation for attending the Kamo Festival celebrating the installation of a new high priestess at the Kamo Shrine.
The scene above is from chapter 42, Nioumiya (His Perfumed Highness) illustrates the one of the later chapters in the book which is concerned with one of Genji and Murasaki's grandchildren: Niou (lit. his perfumed highness), and his close companion, Kaoru (lit. the fragrant captain). As their names suggests, both men were quite concerned with their pleasant scent. Kaoru was fortunate enough to have a naturally beautiful scent, while Niou competitively created his own perfumes. The scene illustrates an oxcart procession to a banquet celebrating a New Year's archery contest.
As we look to the top of the middle panel, chapter 12, Suma (Suma shore), we see many poetic allusions from the text, translated to visual images through the use of nature. The vast blue sea against the gold clouds gives a sense of isolation which is representative of Genji's self-imposed exile to the lonely windswept shores of Suma. Below, in chapter 34, Wakana (New Herbs), elaborate festivities are underway to celebrate the Retired Emperor Suzaku's 50th birthday. In this scene Genji gives Nyosan (The Third Princess) extensive music lessons to prepare her for the special performances on Suzaku's behalf.
On the last panel of the right screen, in chapter 14, Miotsukushi (Channel Buoys), Genji is seen making a pilgrimage to Akashi to thank the local god of Sumiyoshi for his divine aid in restoring his fortune. Lady Akashi hears that Genji is at the nearby shrine and attempts to make the same pilgrimage. However, she is so overwhelmed by his resplendent appearance that she is seen here retreating in her boat. Genji hears of this and rushes to her boat writing poems about the "channel buoys". In the final vignette, chapter 3, Utsusemi (The Shell of the Locust), Genji is seen in plain clothes on the veranda spying on Utsusemi playing a game of go with her stepdaughter. Once Utsusemi notices Genji, she quickly flees the room leaving her outer robe behind. The discarded robe is likened by Genji to the shell of a locust.
The refined painting on this pair of screens epitomizes the aesthetic mores and miyabi (courtly elegance) of the Heian period. Patronized by the courts, the Tosa school of painting was known for depictions of purely Japanese subjects such as The Tale of Genji. Their hand scrolls depicting Japanese history and literature established an iconography that would vary little in future narratives, regardless of the artist's specific training. The elegant color scheme, controlled brushwork utilizing tsukuri-e (layers of paint applied over an under drawing), detailed textiles and compartmentalized vignettes found on these screens are all reminiscent of Tosa school hand scrolls. However, the Kano school, dominant in the Edo period, was known to borrow practices of other schools and incorporate them into their Chinese-based tradition. The sophisticated monochrome ink landscapes found on the byobu and fusuma panels in Kiritsubo, Hahakigi, Aoi, Wakana and Utsusemi chapters, as well as the landscape in the Wakamurasaki chapter and the gnarled plum in the Suetsumuhana chapter, all indicate the artist was well versed in the painting techniques of the Kano school.
Miyeko Murase, The Tale of Genji: Legends and Paintings, 2001
Delicate Divide: The Art of the Japanese Screen, Scholten Japanese Art, New York, March 2001, cat. no. 8
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site last updated
February 26, 2021
Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
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