Album of Confucian gojō poems and scenes from the Tale of Genji

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  • Catalogue text

    This exquisitely painted album includes a seemingly random selection of only twelve scenes from the fifty-four chapters of the Tale of Genji. The paintings are done in the traditional Yamato-e manner of the Tosa school, with a few important differences. As described in the essay at the front of this catalogue, some of the painted images deviate from the standard depiction of these scenes in albums of the same subject attributable to Tosa school artists. In addition, an immediately noticeable characteristic of all of the scenes of courtly life is the extreme elongation of the faces.

    The scenes appear largely in chronological order from the earliest chapters of the tale and proceed through the story. The last few painted scenes, however, stray from this pattern and seem to depict earlier chapters. Due to the presence of earlier pre-modern repairs, it seems the leaves were salvaged from a more complete album or set of albums that were damaged significantly by water. In the order they appear in the album, the chapters illustrated can be identified as:

    Chapter 2, Hahakigi (The Broom Tree)
    Chapter 4, Yugao (Evening Faces)
    Chapter 8, Hana no en (The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms)
    Chapter 9, Aoi (Heartvine)
    Chapter 15, Yomogiu (The Wormwood Patch)
    Chapter 17, E-awase (A Picture Contest)
    Chapter 23, Hatsune (The First Warbler)
    Chapter 30, Fujibakama (Purple Trousers)
    Chapter 45, Hashihime (The Lady at the Bridge)
    Chapter 37, Yokobue (The Flute)
    Chapter 51, Ukifune (A Boat Upon the Waters)
    Chapter 40, Minori (The Rights)

    In ‘The Wormwood Patch’ illustration, Genji and his men hack through an overgrown garden on their way to a dilapidated house. It is the residence of the Safflower Princess, Jijū, a past love of the prince’s whom he has been neglecting. In the dark of night under the moonlight, Genji’s man has an exchange with the elderly maid of the house. Wet and unkempt, Genji finally makes it into the house. The distressed expression of the servant carrying the umbrella is in stark contrast to Genji’s composure. It is one of the most evocative scenes in the novel where the description of the setting mimics the inner emotional life of the characters. It is a favourite scene of illustrators of the tale that can be seen in the earliest illustrated version of the early twelfth century.

    In the illustration for ‘A Picture Contest', two factions of ladies sit unrolling handscrolls. They discuss the various virtues of the paintings before them, trying to outdo one another. First they unroll several scenes from ancient tales, but for the finale in front of the emperor, the Kokiden faction brings out scrolls painted by Genji detailing his time in exile. The painting and the captions of the handscroll before them perfectly reflects Genji’s melancholy during those years, and the Kokiden faction wins the contest. The artist of the Ashmolean album has chosen to depict scrolls with poetry rather than paintings, as was the standard for this scene. One of the most elaborate in the album, the scene includes several sumptuously clothed figures and decorated lacquer boxes with details painted in with gold. The artist has even gone so far as to paint gold decoration on the handscroll that the women are discussing.

    Word and image come together in this album for a specific instructional purpose. The painted scenes are prefaced by poems based on four of the five Confucian virtues of filial piety (gojō) written on lavishly decorated silk. The callig¬rapher of the poem for rei (politeness) can be identified as Reizei no Tameyasu (1735-1816) from his idiosyncratic writing style. The gojō poems originally appeared in the fourteenth century text, the Shūgyokushū, but were quite popular in the eighteenth century as evidenced by their appearance in woodblock prints [for example, a set of five prints by Suzuki Harunobu (1724-70) illustrate the gojō poems. For the set in the Art Institute of Chicago, see Gentles, Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints vol. 2, 68-70]. The poems were seen as didactic verses for young women as they negotiated family relationships. Likewise, the Tale of Genji itself was also read as a sort of behavioural manual for women to learn the refined manners of the courtly past [this is evidenced in the writing of Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691). See Compact Treasures, n. 20]. The calligraphy and Tale of Genji scenes together would have made an appropriate gift for a bride from a wealthy merchant or daimyo family for inclusion in her wedding trousseau.

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 44 on pp. 156-160, pp. 14, 18-27, 34, & 152, illus. pp. 19-24 figs 1 - 7 & pp. 156 - 161

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