Not every enduring literary masterpiece inspires a thousand years of often great art. “The Tale of Genji,” written in early-11th-century Japan and possibly the world’s first novel, is an exception. A narratively rich saga of life and love at the Japanese imperial court, it spurred innovation and was in many ways foundational to Japanese art itself.
Similarly, only a few museums can do justice to such a long span of creativity. Prominent among them is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose “‘The Tale of Genji’: A Japanese Classic Illuminated,” is glorious, as sumptuous and sprawling as the book itself, full of rare loans from Japanese institutions.
“Genji,” the book, is one of the monuments of Japan’s Heian period (794-1185), widely considered its golden age. It was then that the kingdom decisively freed itself from Chinese influence, developing, for example, its own syllabic writing, called kana, in which “Genji” was executed, and which shortly became the basis for a new Japanese calligraphy. At the same time, the Japanese emperors were becoming largely ceremonial, if not decadent; in reality, Japan was ruled by a succession of aristocratic clans, headed by a shogun, starting with the Fujiwara family.
Written by a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting, the novel captures the aestheticism, intrigue and mores of court life as they swirl around the irresistibly handsome, polyamorous, morally flexible (and fictional) Prince Genji — a.k.a. the Shining Prince. The story unfolds in 54 linked chapters with a large cast that includes beautiful live-in mistresses, part-time lovers, children, devoted retainers and Genji bros. (In “An Imperial Celebration of Autumn Foliage,” Chapter 7, the Shining Prince cavorts with his closest friend, To no Chujo, in a dance of the blue waves.) Genji is a playboy prince, but a neurotic one, a Don Juan with more than a touch of Hamlet, capable of remorse, guilt and depression and a kind of obsessive self-pity. He also weeps easily.
Perhaps before it was even finished, chapters of “Genji” began to circulate at court and beyond and soon its author achieved a quiet celebrity. She became known as Lady Murasaki Shikibu, after her book’s main female character and Genji’s great love. “Genji” has an emotional intensity that feels startlingly modern especially in its characters’ constant enumerations of their inner lives and mood swings. It is a romantic novel, suffused with melancholy and poetic longing and sometimes interrupted by impulsive actions with a fairly high #MeToo quotient. Genji may have raped one of his conquests; he kidnapped Murasaki virtually on first sight, when she was 10.
Within a century of its writing, Japanese artists were rising to the epic’s challenge, giving its scenes visual form in illustrated “Genji” albums, handscrolls, hanging scrolls, large folding screens and, less familiar, a dazzling, miniaturized version of colorless ink-line painting. Over the course of the show we see the country’s pictorial sensibility emerge: the delicate isometric renderings of architecture and the blown-off roof that give interiors and exteriors equal visibility (since Genji is often on the outside peeping in). And the low-lying gold-leaf clouds that accentuate the aerial view tantalizingly block out bits of action and add great decorative verve.
You can see these elements in a nascent relatively crude state in the 12th-century “Tale of Genji Handscrolls.” Among the oldest surviving Genji manuscripts, these scrolls could not travel but the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, has sent in their stead meticulous copies made from 1926 to 1935 by the artist Tanaka Shinbi (1875-1975). Real or not, seeing them is a bit like seeing Early Renaissance paintings for the first time.
The show includes Genji-related tea bowls, kimonos, household furnishings and a lacquered wood palanquin that the Met acquired in 2007. Built in 1856 for the bride of a Tokugawa shogun, its exterior is patterned in gold and silver, its interior painted with suitable “Genji” vignettes. There are also Edo period woodblock parodies, some openly erotic. Despite its many romantic assignations and encounters, “Genji” never is.
This lavishness has been assembled by John T. Carpenter, the Met’s Japanese art curator and Melissa McCormick professor of Japanese art and culture at Harvard University, with Monika Bincsik and Kyoko Kinoshita.
Murasaki, the writer, became a legend in her own right. Early in the exhibition you’ll encounter several nearly matching hand-scroll portrait-icons of her opulently dressed, bending over her writing table — a lacquered wood example is also on view. In each her opulent robes rise around her like a small mountain range, through which her long hair often extends like a sinuous river. Although her surroundings are sparse if not nonexistent, she is at Ishiyamadera, a Buddhist temple where she may have gone to write her novel.
While there, Murasaki is said to have been encouraged in her task by the bodhisattva Nyoirin Kannon. And he too is in the show: a 10th-century sculpture in gilded lacquered wood from the Ishiyamadera Temple that was worshiped in Murasaki’s day.
Some measure of the different ways “The Tale of Genji” has been adapted by artists comes into focus when you track some of the more famous chapters through the show. For example, the first version here of Chapter 12, “Exile to Suma” — in which Genji is traumatized by being briefly banished from Kyoto to Japan’s southern coast where he endures boredom, anxiety and rough weather — is a mid-13th-century manuscript executed in beautiful tendrils of calligraphy on decorated paper, but without illustrations.
A storm is readily apparent in a late-16th-century screen dominated by enormous curling, dragon-like waves rendered primarily in ink while our hero sits bravely in a small shelter on the shore (far right). Next, an early 17th-century hanging scroll by Isawa Matabei (1578-1650) zeros in on this structure, with Genji standing facing the wind, his kimono billowing, behind semitransparent bamboo blinds called misu that are in actual use elsewhere in the show.
Similarly, “A Boat Cast Adrift” (Chapter 51), which shows Genji’s grandson, Niou, and Ukifune, his lover, sitting alone in a skiff on the Ufi River, appears in two screens along with scenes from other chapters, while a two-panel treatment from 1966 by Sata Yoshiro (1922-1997), shows only the boat and its nearly life-size passengers, who now recline. Toward the exhibition’s end, a wonderful mid-17th-century two-panel screen of three courtesans, the boat scene is diminished. It appears in a tiny painting on the sliding door to another room, where it reads as an invitation to intimacy.
The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated
Through June 16 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.