Storytelling in Japanese Art

It comes as a surprise to many that manga is part of an artistic form reaching back to the 11th century. This exhibition is a “manifestation of deep Japanese traditions” as organizer Masako Watanabe states. The show displays scrolls, screens, books, dishes, and sculptures ranging from the 13th to 19th centuries.

The viewer is transported to a Japanese setting with a Zen-like water fountain and huge life-size sculptures of Japanese deities, one with a serene expression and eleven heads. The masterpiece of this collection is the room devoted to the Tale of Genji. Written in the 11th century the tale is a masterpiece of literature, some believe it to be the first modern novel. This complex love story comes alive through the scrolls created in the 13th century. The Tale of Genji tells the story of the eponymous Genji, son of an emperor. He grew up at court having many love affairs with court ladies, including his father’s wives. One illicit affair leads to him being exiled, but he shortly returns and enters the emperor’s government. Karma strikes him when his wife also has an illicit affair. His other wife dies and Genji becomes a hermit in a mountain temple. The story then continues with his grandson and friend who continue the love escapades.

The Tale of Genji

The hand scrolls illustrating this story are meant to be unraveled from right to left, so as to be read from right to left. The beauty of the art is in the delicacy of the drawings as well as the wide-open spaces. The reader views the scrolls from above, allowing them to grasp the entire picture, but the intricate detail of the figures also transports the viewer to the scene. Japanese scroll painting was heavily influenced and derived from Chinese, Tang Dynasty landscape paintings. The sprawling landscapes transport the viewer into the painting and carry them through the story by the use of multiple vanishing points that convey a continuing sense of perspective.

The style of these scrolls was then translated into many different art forms. Included in the gallery were dishes, plates and books, all mirroring the scroll painting style. A dish dated to the 1650s shows a court lady by a Shinto shrine, around her are golden and blue clouds, indistinguishable from those of the backgrounds of the scrolls.

There were also large screens which multiply the scope of these paintings and bring the viewer much closer. The Battles of Ichinotani and Yashima Kano Jinnojô is the most remarkable of these. Its huge scope recalls the story of, and shows in vivid detail, a battle between two dynastic clans in a struggle for control of Japan. While not popular in the normal home, paintings of battle were hugely popular amongst Samurai, the warrior elite.

Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine

The scope of the exhibition was slightly overwhelming to a complete novice in Japanese art so the Met’s guidance greatly added to the experience. Another must-see at the Met, this exhibition will transport all viewers to a fascinating world of love, betrayal and tragedy.


George Flickinger & Olympia Severis

Image 1 – Askewmind

Image 2- peterjr1961