Tosa Mitsuoki, “Murasaki Shikibu Composing ‘The Tale of Genji’” (detail, 17th century, Edo period), hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; image: 35 5/8 × 20 3/4 inches; overall with mounting: 66 9/16 × 26 7/16 inches; overall with knobs: 66 9/16 × 28 9/16 inches; lent by Ishiyamadera Temple (photo courtesy Ishiyamadera; image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Tale of Genji. A Japanese Classic Illuminated, the first major loan exhibition in North America devoted to this famous Japanese book, includes more than 120 works — paintings, calligraphy, silk robes, wedding robes, and some modern popular art. The Tale of Genji, created about a thousand years ago, was the world’s first novel. Its author, Murasaki Shikibu, a woman of high privilege, wrote in vernacular Japanese. She also knew Chinese, an unusual skill for a woman in her culture.

Enormously long, 1155 pages in the Arthur Waley translation, Genji was often interpreted by visual artists. Within the novel, there are numerous descriptions of pictures, but it would be a heroic exercise to reconstruct them because the earliest illustrations, handscrolls illustrating only a small portion of the text, date from mid-12th century.

However, most of the works on display date from at least 500 years after the novel, around 1650, when printing was developed and the text became much more accessible. Many of these paintings depict scenes in the novel, but some, like a 17th-century scroll by Tosa Mitsuoki, depict the author, Murasaki. And some others present Buddhist doctrines.

In some ways, Murasaki’s Japan was not entirely unlike some Western cultures. As a woman, she can’t, so she says, discuss politics. And so she shows a court that rules, but not the activity of ruling itself. Her courtiers are interested in perfumes, dream interpretation, poetry, music, and gardens; snobbish aesthetes, they are fascinated by male and female beauty. And like the English, they use umbrellas. The lower classes are generally in evidence only as servants. These courtiers are much concerned with religious rituals, and some of them are monks and nuns.

But since they are Buddhists, the names and nature of their ceremonies are in need of exegesis. Sometimes Genji, the eponymous hero, a handsome prince, seems spiritually akin to the aristocrats in Saint-Simon’s account of Louis XIV’s French court or, indeed, to the men in Louis Auchincloss’s novels of 20th-century Americans.

But the Japanese garments and interiors depicted in these visual works are very unlike those from European or American culture. One gets the sense of a self-confident world, closed off to most outside influences. In an exhibition of French images covering the same period, dramatic visual changes would be obvious. The stylistic development from medieval to the classicism of Nicolas Poussin and on to modernism would make it easy to date the representations. Here, however, such changes in style are not obvious. In Japan, the catalogue says, aesthetic innovation was not of prime importance.

Kyō-Kano School, “The Safflower (Suetsumuhana)” from “The Tale of Genji” (detail, mid-17th century, Edo period); Scroll 3 from a set of three handscrolls; ink, color, and gold on paper, 13 15/16 × 89 inches; Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (photo courtesy The New York Public Library; image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Many of the very beautiful images in the exhibition can be appreciated aesthetically, without knowing Japanese culture. And seeing the opaque clouds, the blown-off roofs that allow us to look into interiors, and the golden backgrounds, it’s easy to understand why, in the 19th century, Japanese art spoke to Western modernists. It’s easy to admire the marvelous six-panel folding screen from the late 16th century, “Genji in Exile at Suma,” in which a solitary messenger, like a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, who is coming to see Genji, seated in the distance on the far right. Or to appreciate the marvelously strange calligraphy by Konoe Nobotada (1565-1614), written over an abstract landscape.

But many of the pictures are puzzling, simply because it isn’t obvious what is going on. How, for example, can you fully appreciate the magnificent 14th or 15th century image of Genji in a carriage without knowing why the hero is in an ox-drawn cart?

Typically these paintings show tiny figures, often floating in a flattened space, without perspective. Who are they and what are they doing? To answer these questions just looking doesn’t suffice; you need to consult the novel. And the calligraphy raises more difficult interpretative problems. Mursaki’s characters are judged by the qualities of their handwriting, by their ability to write poems and draw, and for their connoisseur’s interest in fine papers. To fully appreciate this art, I imagine that you would need to fluently read and write Japanese. Indeed, that language has changed so much that even native speakers nowadays need a translation to read Genji. If we cannot read and write the language, we are often in the dark.

But sometimes we can learn by walking around the museum. Puzzling over how to understand this display, I went to another show at the Met, The Decorated Word: Writing and Picturing in Islamic Calligraphy (April 8 – November 3, 2019). Like the Japanese, Muslims are much concerned with writing. But where most of the writing in the Genji exhibition presents Mursaki’s fictional narrative, Islamic sacred calligraphy presents the words of the Qur’an, as communicated by God to Mohammed, an acute difference. And of course, in European old master visual art, handwriting is relatively unimportant.

Although these comparisons, in the end, didn’t help me understand this exhibition, they did provide a useful demonstration of interpretative problems. One important goal of the art museum is to bring art that is historically or geographically distant closer to our experience. The curator of an exhibition devoted to illustrations of the Bible might reasonably assume that the Met audience would have a general familiarity with the text. But unless you have read The Tale of Genji and know something about Japanese art, you are unlikely to understand the art here, which leads to the question of how much context a museum should provide.

Some people prefer to focus on the art, without the distractions of labels. Here, however, the paucity of such useful background information left this great visual exhibition drastically undermotivated. On the day I visited the Met’s most popular show — Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll, which was downstairs — it was so crowded that getting in the door was all but impossible. New York audiences generally know about guitars, but when it comes to old master Japanese art we really need instruction. Even when the Met was crowded, this show was not. Would the exhibition be better attended were the art made more accessible? I would like to think so.

What I dream of, but hardly ever find, are inexpensive exhibition catalogues with interpretative essays for the general reader. For The Tale of Genji, however, we have a massive, gorgeous, and, needless to say, expensive presentation with essays by seven specialists talking among themselves. For me, the most instructive section was the short appendix by Akazawa Mari discussing the Japanese residential architecture depicted in these images. A lost opportunity, for sure.

Note: My earlier related review is “The Millenium of The Tale of Genji, The Museum of Kyoto,” ArtUS, 24/24 (Fall-Winter, 2008): 17.

The Tale of Genji. A Japanese Classic Illuminated continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 16.

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...

3 replies on “A Japanese Classic, Dimly Illuminated”

  1. Visually spell-binding exhibition even if I can’t read or understand Japanese. I find that the content of art is the ungraspable, inherent “art” itself, rather than “story”. It connects and communicates to us as humans.
    And yes desire for context comes from the transporting power of the art. It made me wish to revisit the novel, or at least parts of it.

  2. Excellent post! I particularly endorse the point about the growing intellectual disparity between the big museums’ blockbuster shows, which bust ever bigger blocks, while exhibitions about lesser known, historical subjects abandon the lay visitor, who may require some help with context, and let the academics, as you say, talk among themselves. However, may I question the oft-repeated characterization of The Tale of Genji as “the world’s first novel”? What do we call the Satyricon of Petronius, which predates it by more than 1000 years? The principal difference I see between them is that portions of the Satyricon are lost.

  3. Perhaps the editors (and Carrier) should get Mur-A-saki’s name right before critiquing the lack of text in the exhibition.

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