Our Genji screens are going to the Met!

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.

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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.

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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

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Different Strokes …

In the special exhibition Brush Ink Paper, calligraphy and paintings from China and Japan are displayed coming from the collection of Dr. Thomas Kuebler. Though one may not speak or read the respective languages from these countries, a visitor can still enjoy the aesthetic and beauty of the works presented.

The written language, particularly in China, is very old, dating back to the Bronze Age. While we can focus on the language’s history, I’m more concerned with the style and the evolution of the appearance of written characters. In this post, I will be discussing four styles of script: seal, clerical, running, and cursive. Each new way of writing seems to have come about organically throughout the ages but at the same time rules governed the way characters were formed. The different styles mixed, evolved, and sort of “grew up” together in early China.

Seal script is the oldest style from the latter part of the Shang Dynasty, around 1200 BCE. As you can see from the image, seal script is very rounded at the ends of strokes. It is also symmetrically balanced and each line is of equal thickness.

SEAL

Today this style is used on signature seals such as this one from the National Taiwan University.

The_seal_of_National_Taiwan_University

From seal script evolved clerical script, which was dominant in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE –220 CE). Now we have characters that are looking more modern and recognizable—and it’s only 206 BCE! But, of course, there are still differences and unique characteristics. The brush strokes create very wide lines, and some of the more dominate lines—like the one in the bottom character – end in a wavelike flare. This style is also still used today, usually as an artistic choice in advertising.

CLERIC

Running script was developed from clerical script during the Han Dynasty as well. This type of writing is quite different from the previous two. Strokes are allowed to run into one another; they are also more fluid and abstract as compared to the angular style of clerical script. While writing, a calligrapher’s brush often does not leave the paper but flows from one stroke into the next, as you can see in the top character.

RUN

Finally, cursive script, which also developed in the Han Dynasty and further refined in the Jin Dynasty (265–420 CE), is a child of clerical script. Here, characters are highly simplified and the calligrapher’s brush does not leave the paper at all. Certain lines in a character are usually modified or eliminated to create this fluidness. The objective for this script is to emphasize its aesthetic appeal more than the characters themselves. This also makes it so it is not particularly legible to the untrained eye and therefore is not often used outside the realm of artistic calligraphy.

CURSIVE

My goal with this post was to make it somewhat easier to identify and understand some of the styles that calligraphers use. Though these four styles represent just the very tip of the iceberg, I hope this post sparked new interest in calligraphy.