Parody of the Yugao Chapter of the Tale of Genji
unsigned, with label on verso in English: Certified Genuine, The Old Prints Society, Tokyo; and in Japanese: Ko Nishiki Shinseikai Tokyo (The Old Prints Society, Tokyo), Kanten ban go, dai rokujuyon ban, shin butsu shomei (number 64th, certified authentic print); with red seal, ca. 1766
chuban tate-e 11 by 8 3/8 in., 28 by 21.3 cm
This composition is a mitate (parody) of the Yugao chapter from the Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), the classic Heian Period epic novel following the complicated life and romances of the 'Shining Prince' Genji that inspired endless variations and interpretations in art and literature through the centuries. The title of chapter 4, Yugao (Evening Faces also known as the 'moonflower'), is so well-known that only an image of the flower, perhaps resting on a folding fan, becomes a direct reference to this sad chapter in the story. Of all of Genji's many lovers, the most tragic is the reclusive beauty residing in a neglected mansion covered by vines with flowering yugao blossoms. She refuses to tell Genji anything about herself, including her name, so he calls her Yugao, after she has a female servant present Genji's servant with a blossom on a scented folding fan inscribed with a poem written in beautiful calligraphy. Fascinated, Genji invites the mysterious lady to a remote villa where they consummate their passions. But only hours later, one of Genji's former lovers, the jealous Lady Rokujo, haunts poor Yugao and quickly takes her life.
A mitate is often loosely defined as a parody, but it isn't always a comic send up of a theme. Often a mitate is merely a subtle allusion to a classical subject that would be familiar enough to be recognized by the sophisticated audience of the day. Had Harunobu left out the flowering vines from the fence in the background of this composition, the connection to the Yugao chapter would be lost. The classical reference is updated with contemporary context via the clothing, the setting, and details such as the letter resting on the young girl's fan which is addressed with the polite language of an Edo period courtesan.
Although the composition of the beauty framed by v-shaped pocket created at the intersection of the fence and gateway feels complete, it is actually the left-hand sheet of a rare diptych. The right sheet illustrates an equally fashionably dressed young wakashu (male youth who has not yet completed the ritual to pass into adulthood) extending his own folding fan in her direction. He is accompanied by a boy holding a miniature ox cart cricket cage which can be interpreted as another reference to the Tale of Genji, alluding to the famous ox cart 'battle' scene in chapter 9, Aoi.
Margaret O. Gentles, The Clarence Buckingham Collection, Volume II, Art Institute of Chicago, 1965, p. 26, no. 44, accession no. 52.325
Ukiyo-e Shuka, vol. 8, 1980, listed p. 116, no. 114
Ukiyo-e Shuka, vol. 1, 1983, listed p. 169, no. 199
David Waterhouse, The Harunobu Decade, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2013, Vol. I, pp. 88-89, cat. no. 100 (Ex. Spaulding Collection) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accession nos. 54.348-9 (diptych), and 21.4969 (left sheet)
Tokyo National Museum (webarchives.tnm.jp), accession no. A-10569_1274 (diptych)
(inv. no. 10-5006)
price: $18,000 (reserved)
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