Arts Review | Westchester
Lady Murasaki’s Masterpiece and Its Update
A Review of ‘Genji’s World in Japanese Wood-Block Prints,’ at Vassar College
Paulette and Jack Lantz Collection
By SYLVIANE GOLD
Published: September 27, 2013
Filled with romance, conflict, sex, adventure and the occasional malevolent visitor from the spirit world, the new print show at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College has so much going on that it would take a book to cover it. Actually, more than one — and it’s not surprising.
Paulette and Jack Lantz Collection
“Genji’s World in Japanese Wood-Block Prints” is essentially about two books: an 11th-century classic of world literature, “The Tale of Genji,” and its 19th-century parody, “A Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki.” Installed in three galleries at the on-campus museum in Poughkeepsie, these 57 images are all derived from the Genji stories. But they do more than illustrate poetic or action-filled moments from a pair of linked fictions; they do more than delight the eye with a banquet of bold and subtle color, intricate patterning and superb draftsmanship.
The episodes they recount, so often set amid vistas of piercing natural beauty, also tell of the refined recreations and aristocratic rituals of classical Japan. They show the technological change and cultural ferment that arrived in the 19th century. And with astonishing detail, they report on fashions in clothing, hairstyles and décor. Then, to keep things really lively, they give us all this refracted by the theater, with images of Kabuki actors performing stage versions of the Genji tales.
The adventures of the handsome, womanizing prince named Genji have endured over the 10 centuries since Lady Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court in Kyoto, first set them down. Sometimes regarded as the first modern novel, her story is a foundational work of Japanese culture — if a Western equivalent existed, it would have to be an amalgam of Homer, Shakespeare and Castiglione, who defined ideal Renaissance manners in his “Book of the Courtier.”
Genji’s moonlit trysts and complicated court intrigues have been supplying Japanese artists with inspiration and material through the ages, and the poet Ryutei Tanehiko (1783-1842) tapped into that tradition in 1829, when he began publishing “A Rustic Genji” as an illustrated serial — do we dare call it an early manga? His “Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji” became a runaway success.
His collaborator, Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865), was already a popular printmaker, but the Genji wood blocks were a sensation, spawning not just additional prints but board games and playing cards as well. And with more than two dozen dazzling images — including the charmingly self-referential “Courtesan Takigawa of Kukimanjiya Reading Inaka Genji” — Kunisada dominates this show, along with his follower, Utagawa Kunisada II (1823-1880), who is represented by more than a dozen works.
“Genji’s World in Japanese Wood-Block Prints” opens with some examples of earlier illustrations related to the original tale. Then it quickly plunges us into the strangely time-warped world of the Kunisadas, in which the “Rustic Genji” hero Mitsuuji, who lives in the 15th century, follows in the footsteps of his 11th-century counterpart, Prince Genji, wearing 19th-century styles and gallivanting through a latter-day Japan that Lady Murasaki wouldn’t recognize.
The most enchanting of these prints show Mitsuuji, usually accompanied by several beautiful women, simply enjoying himself: boating, picnicking, sightseeing. He contemplates snow sculptures, flowering trees and naked ladies diving for abalone.
In “Illustration of a Cool Breeze at Takanawa in Tokyo,” by Toyoharu Kunichika (1835-1900), Mitsuuji and his female companions go for a ride, and we see modern Japan taking shape. It is 1870, and sedan chairs have given way to horse-drawn carriages; bearded, cigar-smoking foreigners are out and about, one on an early bicycle; and a pair of spanking-new telegraph poles with the wire strung between them frame the image, which, like many of the show’s prints, is in triptych format.
Steamships and a suspension bridge are among the other novelties that show up in Mitsuuji’s travels. But mostly we see him surrounded by more traditional imagery. In Kunisada’s “Enoshima in Sagami Province,” he visits an island shrine. A just-released crane carrying a letter sweeps across two of the three panels in Utagawa Fusatane’s “Bird” as Mitsuuji looks on. A whole flock takes to the air in Kunisada II’s “Eastern Genji Amid Pine, Bamboo and Plum,” with Mount Fuji just visible in the distance.
The show’s labels do a good job of explaining the cultural significance of the flora, fauna and other symbols that appear with such regularity in Japanese art.
But visitors won’t need help appreciating the sheer graphic power of these prints. In one of Kunisada’s most striking triptychs, from 1851, the drama of a Kabuki scene (acted by Ichikawa Kodanji IV, Kumesaburo III and Onoe Kikujiro II) is heightened by the slashing diagonals of his composition and the ominous, blood-red color of the long, unwound sash that visually links the three characters. It’s clear there will be no happy ending — except, of course, for us, and for Lady Murasaki, whose handsome prince shines on.