Genji and the Akashi Lady, from the Tale of Genji


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    Genji and the Akashi lady sit overlooking a garden on a crisp autumn day in Oi. The shutters have been raised and the blinds have been rolled up to expose the many flowers and grasses of the season in the garden including the red maple leaves, bush clover and susuki (pampas) grass. In the distance, cormorant fishermen with their torches lit follow the birds who peer into the water and catch the fish up in their mouths. Though most of the painting is taken up by the activity on the lake and the garden, neither figure looks out at them. He looks at her, and her gaze is cast slightly downward. Though their expressions are minimal, the scene is obviously a melancholy one. Genji has recently taken the Akashi lady’s young daughter to live with his wife Murasaki. When he visits the Akashi lady his thoughts are therefore often of a solemn and guilty nature. He remarks that while in China people revere the colours of spring most highly, in Japanese poetry it is the gloomy autumn that is preferred [Seidensticker, Tale of Genji, 345]. The Akashi lady recites the poem:

    The torches bobbing with the fisher boats,
    Upon those waves have followed me to Oi.

    To which Genji replies:

    Only one who does not know deep waters,
    Can still be bobbing, dancing on those waves.

    [Ibid., 347]

    The Tale of Genji is the novel by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973-1014) about the amorous adventures of Prince Genji. The artist of this fan would have been adept at depicting many scenes from the novel, fluent in the application of the thick mineral pigments, the stiff figural style and the depiction of architectural elements known to him through family archives of models. Sumiyoshi Hiroyuki is a descendant of the line of artists who were official painters to the Tokugawa shoguns. The Sumiyoshi are a branch family of the Tosa artists whose members were the super¬intendents of the Imperial Painting Office in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Both schools were proficient in the Japanese mode of painting, Yamato-e, which took as its subject the literature and legends of the court’s golden age during the Heian period. Often in paintings of the Tale of Genji, gold clouds serve to soften the boundaries between scenes and help the viewer to focus on the central elements of the painting. In this fan, however, the gold ‘clouds’ are more like two bands along the upper and lower edges of the composition. They cease to be useful in their original role, and serve only as a reminder of what Sumiyoshi school painting is expected to look like. By this stage, the Sumiyoshi school artists were still highly valued due to their pedigree, but the compositions were sorely in need of an infusion of life. It was this fact that led to the resurgence of Yamato-e with a strong new spirit, spearheaded by Tanaka Totsugen.

    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. 45 on pp. 162-163, p. 152, illus. pp. 162-163

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