The Tale of Genji: The Impact of Women's Voices on a Thousand Years of Romance in the Arts

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    Anonymous Lady Murasaki Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 17th century Fan; ink, color and gold on paper Gift of John Gregg Allerton, 1984 (5264.1)

October 07, 2010 - January 30, 2011
Gallery 20

Exhibition Overview

The Tale of Genji was written around 1000-1012 by Murasaki Shikibu at the illustrious Heian Japanese court (784-1185). The world’s first psychological novel—and most important book by a woman—it recounts the romantic affairs of Prince Genji, his friends and their sons, with the many women they love. These events have inspired not only fiction and Nö theater, but countless works of visual art over the past millennium—from painting, calligraphy, and woodblock prints to kimono designs, games, and even popular films and comic books. With its 1,100 poems, it plays between two very different aesthetics: a gorgeous, fashionable aesthetic of courtly elegance (miyabi ), and the restrained, even sad, awareness of the transience of life inspired by Buddhism called mono-no-aware.

The Academy has a fine collection of texts and illustrations of the novel. These include Edo-period Tosa School fans and album leaves vividly painted with gold leaf. They are renowned for their depictions of gardens and of seasonal “sports” such as snowman-making and football. Also shown are screens, textiles, and a set of shells from the painted shell game (kai awase), all inspired by Genji.