The Gallery has recently acquired a spectacular pair of six-fold screens (rokkyoku byobu) inspired by an episode of the classic Japanese novel Tale of Genji. Created in the early seventeenth century, their subject matter attests to the enduring popularity of the court epic and the great skill of Momoyama-period artists.
Genji Monogatari or Tale of Genji was written in the early eleventh century, at the height of the Heian period (794–1185), by a noblewoman known as Murasaki Shikibu. Although scholars disagree on the details of Lady Murasaki’s real identity (such as her first name), she was born into the powerful Fujiwara family in the late tenth century and became a lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko. Tale of Genji, often referred to as the world’s first novel, is widely considered a masterpiece of Japanese literature. Its narrative centres on the talented and extraordinarily attractive aristocrat Genji, son of an emperor, and several generations of his family. While Genji is a fictional character, Lady Murasaki’s tale was likely based on real people and events. Her text conjures up the atmosphere of Heian court life, particularly the great appreciation of the arts, beauty and courtly refinement for which the period is renowned. Divided into 54 chapters, the novel relates court events, complex social relationships, love affairs, scandals and political intrigues. Heian-period courtiers, the author’s contemporaries, eagerly sought instalments of the novel as they were written. Images from the tale became an important theme in Japanese art and were especially prevalent in the later Momoyama period (1573–1615).
The Gallery’s screens illustrate Miyuki: the imperial outing and hunt, chapter 29 of the epic tale, and capture the rich pageantry of Japanese court life. The magnificent procession that appears on the left screen is a royal hunting party travelling from the Imperial palace to visit a shrine at Oharano, west of old Kyoto. The emperor, Genji’s illegitimate son, is hidden from public view inside a bullock-drawn carriage. As the excursion was a major official and social court event, the emperor is accompanied by an impressive entourage of mounted guards, servants and costumed courtiers. Dressed in white, a group of attendants carry large parasols to unfurl on arrival in Oharano. A crowd of children, farmers, samurai and aristocratic men and women has gathered to enjoy the colourful spectacle. In contrast to the stately procession,
the right screen shows the chaos of the hunt. Falconers, men on horseback, and courtiers in ornate dress pursue deer, pheasants and wild boar across an atmospheric landscape.
While Tale of Genji describes an earlier time, the scene presented on this pair of screens is set in the seventeenth century. Despite the temporal shift, the painting retains much of the essence of Murasaki’s novel, particularly in terms of an overall sense of elegance, and attention to the details of ceremonial events and personal adornment. All the characters are in exquisite Momoyama-period dress, with textile designs and hairstyles represented in stunning detail. The blossoming cherry trees are another embellishment to the original story, reflecting the growing popularity of cherry blossom viewing in seventeenth-century Japan.
In the Momoyama period, painted screens were generally commissioned by wealthy patrons and designed to appeal to individual interests and social position. The creator of this painting was likely an artist of Japan’s celebrated Kano school, which was established in the sixteenth century and thrived for over 300 years. Kano paintings are characterised by sweeping abstracted natural settings, detailed depictions of figures and animals, and the use of gold leaf. Here, the extensive gilding and embossing of the clouds gives the landscape a luminous quality.
Purchased with the assistance of Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett, generous supporters of Japanese art in Australia, Miyuki: the imperial outing and hunt enhances the Gallery’s small but fine collection of Japanese screens. It is currently on display in the gallery of East Asian Art.
in artonview, issue 61, autumn 2010
This is a pair of six-fold screens painted during the Momoyama period (1573-1615) in Japan depicting chapter 29 of the epic Japanese novel ‘Tale of Genji’. The screens are shown as an enlargeable image. Text on screen gives detailed information on the history of the novel, the period it was written, and an extensive visual analysis. The screens capture the rich pageantry of Japanese court life. Each screen measures 168.0 cm high x 366.0 cm wide and was painted with colour and gold on paper.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra