The Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Genji screens are going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York! According to John Carpenter, Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese Art at the Met, “the screens will be included in the exhibition The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic illuminated (March 5–June 16, 2019), the first major show in North America to focus on the artistic tradition inspired by Japan’s most celebrated work of literature. Covering the period from the eleventh century to the present, The Tale of Genji will feature more than 120 works, including paintings, calligraphy, silk robes, lacquer wedding set items, a palanquin for the shogun’s bride, and popular art such as ukiyo-e prints and modern manga. Highlights include two National Treasures and several works recognized as Important Cultural Properties. For the first time ever outside Japan, rare works will be on view from Ishiyamadera Temple.” The Eskenazi Museum screens will be displayed prominently, across from the Jodoji Temple fan screens and in the same room as the Harvard Genji Albums.
Tale of Genji, which was written in the early eleventh century by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu, is often called the first modern novel composed in any language. The original manuscript no longer exists, but many copies, though fragmentary, survive in the form of 54 chapters and 750,000 words, although there is some disagreement as to the order. The tale revolves around the life of Prince Genji and his descendants, their loves, losses, jealousies, and sorrows in the context of life in the Japanese imperial court. The central character, Genji, is the perfect courtier—handsome, clever, and accomplished—but his life, and those of his descendants, is overshadowed by sadness, guilt, and remorse.
The Eskenazi Museum’s screen is unusual in that it illustrates only two moments, rather than many, from the tale. The screen on the right is from the chapter entitled “Murasaki,” or “Lavendar.” Murasaki, one of Genji’s enduring love interests, is depicted as a young girl in the center of the veranda. Her pet bird has escaped to the highest branches of the flowering cherry to the left. Genji peeps through the fence, seeing Murasaki for the first time.
The screen on the left is from the chapter “Ukifune” (sometimes translated as floating or drifting boat) and depicts Genji’s grandson Niou catching a glimpse of Ukifune, who sits with her serving women folding clothes.
By illustrating story lines from the early and late chapters of the tale, the unknown artist creates emotional and karmic bookends that invite the viewer to contemplate the various narrative threads and emotional entanglements that occur across generations.
Judith A. Stubbs, PhD
Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art