An inspiration for contemporary manga, video games and animated films, the “Tale of Genji”—a classic work of Japanese literature—will be the focus of the “Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints” exhibition at The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The exhibit, which opens this Friday, September 20 and runs through December 15, will feature 57 Japanese woodblock prints from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The exhibition will open with the lecture: “Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production” by Columbia University professor of Japanese literature and culture Hario Shirane on Friday, September 20 at 5:30pm. The exhibition is part of a traveling show across the United States—the first of its kind outside of Japan. Most of the works at the exhibit are from the private and extensive collection of Paulette and Jack Lantz, who collect Asian antiquities in their home in Pasadena, California.
The “Tale of Genji” was written by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a Japanese novelist and aristocrat during the eleventh century. Written a thousand years ago, the lengthy tale is composed of 54 chapters. The tale details the love and adventures of Hikaru Genji “Shining Genji,” who is the emperor’s son, but is relegated to the status of a commoner for political reasons. Some of the major themes of the tale include: love, lust, friendship and family bonds.
Most of the prints in the exhibition are called rustic Genji, which is a parody of the Genji tale. Instead of the tale being set in the medieval, aristocratic courts, the rustic Genji tale is set in the pleasure quarters of Japan. In this rustic or countryside portrayal, Genji is placed in different Japanese print subject areas, often times prints that deal with flowers and birds. The rustic Genji whole life is an imitation of the earlier Genji. He has adventures dealing with love and is in pursuit of treasures that were stolen away from his family.
Art center Curator Patricia Phagan believes that the Rustic Genji is an important part of Japanese culture and should receive the recognition it deserves. “The rustic Genji parody in the nineteenth century was a huge best seller and it really made the tale of Genji much more accessible to a broad audience. From the 1890s on, the tale of Genji, the earlier one, keeps getting more fame whereas the rustic Genji much less so, and it’s only from this exhibition that the rustic Genji has sort of come back into its own and been recognized,” she said.
In preparation for the exhibition at Vassar, Phagan categorized the prints into themes. The themes include: theater, travel to famous sites, flowers, birds, the seasons, divers, sex, games and two introductory sections. “When I looked at all of the images, I really had to divide them into themes to make intellectual sense of the images that I have not seen before, so I had to put all of the images on the table and make these themes” she recalled.
Through the process of categorizing the images, Phagan was overwhelmed by the beautiful prints, especially the different colors, patterns and contrasts. The prints’ portrayal of fashion during the mid-nineteenth century has impressed Ms. Phagan the most. “I want people to be able to come into the exhibition and just be overwhelmed by the colors and fashions that are in the show and in the prints. The fashions that people will see were the fashion of mid-nineteenth century Japan: beautiful kimonos and beautiful sachets. These were all things that realty appealed, market-wise, to different audiences in the nineteenth century.”
She continued, “Today, people will have a great window into the culture in the contemporary nineteenth-century Japan, and see why folks were so drawn to the phenomenon of the prints,” she stated.
Assistant Professor of Art History in the Art Department Karen Hwang also knew about the exhibition very early on. In anticipation of the upcoming exhibit, Hwang is currently teaching “Word and Image: Pictorial Narratives of East Asia,” a seminar that discusses the Tale of Genji and other Asian art.
“This set of prints demonstrates the fluid and dynamic relationship between word and image. The prints represent a visual field in which multiple traditions converge: the organic life of the original 11th-century Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, picture scrolls that the novel spurred and in turn shaped multiple digests including the 19th century literary parody Inaka Genji, which gave rise to the prints we get to view at Vassar,” Hwang stated.
“They do different things to different social groups, but it seems to me that they arouse a love of love in many young minds of contemporary society. The love extends to other human beings, the drama that loving and desiring involve, and to all the colors of nature and ‘the moments’ lived,” Hwang stated.