Written in about 1008 by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu, the Tale of Genji is one of Japan’s greatest cultural achievements. The romantic tale recounts in 54 chapters spanning over three-quarters of a century and involving some 430 characters the fortunes and romantic conquests of the imperial prince Genji and his heirs. The intricacies of human relationships and the courtly splendour that make up the world of the Shining Prince – as Genji was nicknamed due to his rare physical beauty – have been a source of inspiration for poetry, paintings, woodblock prints, decorative arts, Kabuki theatre, Takarazuka musicals, films, Manga, Anime and design.
Drawing together 79 art works – including paintings, woodblock prints, woodblock printed books, Manga and design objects – Genji heralds Australia’s participation in the worldwide celebration of the 1000th anniversary of this unique tale.
Depicting the various stages of amorous conquests or the splendour of celebrations at court, the jewel-like paintings on hanging scrolls, album leaves and folding screens represent the Tale of Genji as a symbol of court culture, imperial privilege and cultural authority.
Commissioned by court and later by military aristocracy and executed by well-established artistic lineages such as the Tosa, Kano, Matabei and Sumiyoshi school, the paintings were intended for the amusement by the elite – especially its female part – and displayed in the female quarters of aristocratic residences.
Since the 17th century, Genji motifs were also favourite decorations on dowry sets for daughters of wealthy, influential families. The possession of objects ornamented with Genji subjects was a social marker of the high level of sophistication and refinement of the bride, and of the wealth of her family. The folding screens, hanging scrolls and albums in this exhibition all date in the 17th – early 18th centuries.
With the development of secular printing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, printed versions of the Tale of Genji, at times illustrated and with commentaries, helped to make the courtly tale part of both lower-ranking samurai and urban commoner culture.
Genji was also absorbed by the popular culture of the Floating World, ukiyo, as high-ranking courtesans in the pleasure quarters adopted names of important female characters in the classic tales as their sobriquets, creating an allure of their sophistication and justifying their high-price. In a similar manner, artists of prints and paintings of the Floating World, ukiyo-e, referenced the Genji as a means of adding a degree of complexity to their work and ‘branding’ their product. They achieved this through the use of traditional Genji motifs, by parodying a particular character or episode of the novel through its transposition into a more contemporary setting or by merely having the word “Genji” in the work title. Especially the publication of the serial novel The false Murasaki’s rustic Genji (Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji, published between 1829 and 1842) triggered a real boom in Genji-prints in the 1850s and 1860s, introducing a new iconography, markedly different from the one conventionalised in paintings.
The interest in the fortunes of the Shining Prince and his descendants and the demand for the visualisation of courtly life survived Japan’s process of modernisation during the Meiji period (1868-1912). It would be taken up by writers and artists alike in the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Of all the visualised forms that to date have represented the Tale of Genji, Manga have been the most effective in reaching across social, economic and demographic borders. The over 30 Manga versions in circulation today have appropriated the Genji tale to meet differing audience levels.
A debut in Australia will make the multi-purpose objects designed by Fukutoshi Ueno with playful pattern designs by Akira Isogawa. Entitled Dress-Code this collaborative work by the two Japanese artists living and working in Australia takes its inspiration from the so-called Genji crest, a rectilinear emblem associated with one of the 54 chapters of the Genji.