The Rising Son of Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints at Vassar
By Robert Burke Warren
Throughout time and across the globe, cultures rise, fall, and evolve with one constant: storytelling. While some stories die with their tellers, others are durable and mutable enough to claim immortality. Westerners often cite Shakespeare and epic poet Homer as masters, yet our culture overlooks the author of the first novel – 11th century Japanese lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu. Nevertheless, a millennium after she finished it, her sprawling, 54-chapter, psychologically astute The Tale of Genji lives on in the East, as gloriously evidenced in Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Arts Center (now until December 15th).
The exhibit encompasses more than The Tale of Genji, however. “The show has a lot of layers,” says curator Patricia Phagan. “It’s not really straightforward.” Peeling back those layers rewards patrons with a dazzling visual experience, while also offering a fascinating story about a story, and insight into woodblock printing at its apogee.
The Tale of Genji – the bedrock of it all – follows the exploits of Hikaru Genji, or “Shining Prince,” the son of the emperor’s beloved concubine, who, while rich and handsome, will never succeed his father, and thus consorts with the common folk, enjoying many loves and adventures, a kind of Prince-and-the-Pauper-in-one, or James Bond-of-the-people. The story remained in the fabric of Japanese society for centuries, offering deft characterizations and glimpses into highborn ritual and custom; the woodblock prints at Vassar, however, mostly represent the boost Genji received from 19th century parodist Ryutei Tanehiko and his illustrator, famed printmaker Utagawa Kunisada. Tanehiko and Kunisada’s 1829 series, A Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki, transformed the Genji story into a pop-art phenomenon, almost a century-and-a-half before anyone coined the term “pop art.” Their “new” Genji, Mitsuuji, the top-knotted second son of the shogun, enlivens 19th century Manga-ish booklets, game boards, and breathtaking triptychs – all on view at Vassar.
In a brazen bit of time-shifting, Mitsuuji traipses through 15th century Japan, wearing extravagant 19th century kimonos, while also popping up incongruously in gorgeously rendered, iconic late-Edo-era landscapes, engaging in similar exploits as his 11th century counterpart. The combined whimsy, beauty, and canny marketing sense caught on; the rising, new merchant class could not get enough of the Rustic Genji, and, like Weird Al Yankovic popularizing the songs he lovingly lampoons, Tanehiko and Kunisada breathed new life into Lady Murasaki’s original work, at last elevating it to the status of classic literature.
“Rustic Genji wasn’t only the best seller of the century,” says Phagan. “It also became a craze. You had Genji hair oil, Genji noodles, Genji face powder.” (Indeed, Genji products – like “Genji aromatic oil” – still exist.)
Tanehiko and Kunisada brought their hero to the people. “They pictured the Rustic Genji going to Kabuki theatre, historic places, and shrines,” Phagan says. “Japanese people loved the Rustic Genji story, but they also loved the fabulous colors, exotic locales, and fashions.”
While both Genji and Mitsuuji fit the profile of the questing hero, their stories are surprisingly feminist, perhaps due to the original author’s gender, and her initial audience, women of the 11th century Japanese court. The female characters, be they spirits, vengeful mothers, or lovers, are quite active, and clearly, the printmakers relished conveying these characters’ willpower. For instance, several works in the exhibit tell the poignant story of Genji and widowed single mother Yugao, the love of Genji’s life. (Murasaki, incidentally, was a widowed single mother.) Upon learning of Genji’s interest in her (quite forbidden, considering her status), Yugao does not wait to be wooed, but rather sends the prince a poem written on a fan covered in morning glories. (Yugao, in fact, means morning glory.) This poem is included on some of the prints, either on a rendering of a fan or, if the image is too small for text, on the clouds above the scene.
While the booklets are mostly black-and-white, the Rustic Genji prints offer a smorgasbord of visual stimuli, including beautifully detailed depictions of the seasons, flowers, birds, pleasure boating, and fishing, all as background for intriguing scenes of love, conflict, and pleasure. Even when Japan’s “era of modernization” began in 1868, artists created Rustic Genji prints featuring suspension bridges, telegraph poles, and bicycles in the background, all as a government-sanctioned means of introducing these new-fangled items to the populace.
Genji may no longer be a craze, and Westerners may need some elucidation, but his story, conceived by a remarkable woman of the 11th century Japanese court, lives on for the foreseeable future, on display now at Vassar.
Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints
September 20 - December 15, 2013
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie