At the court of Prince Genji, a thousand years of Japanese imagination

Visit-conference by Sylvie Ahmadian, speaker at MNAA-GUIMET.

This exhibition is dedicated to one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature, the Genji Monogatari or Said of Genji, considered the first psychological novel in world literature. Written at the beginning of the 11thrd century by a lady-in-waiting at the court, Murasaki Shikibu (circa 973-circa 1014-1025), the work evokes with subtlety and poetry the refinement of the imperial court of the Heian period (794-1185) and testifies to a particularly rich and prolific artistic period, often referred to as the golden age of Japanese culture and art. In many ways, the work is an incisive and comprehensive critique of the customs of the Heian court, but with an inward, intimate view. There we find the scorned wife, the jealous husband, the courtesan, the unrepentant seducer, the fascination with power, the different social classes, money...

This literary monument was – and still remains today – a major source of inspiration for Japanese artists, giving rise over time to an extraordinarily rich and diverse iconography.

The Heian period saw Japan move away from the Chinese models which were predominant during the Nara period (710-794) and create its own island art. In particular, the learned nobles invented a system of simplified syllabary writing called hiragana. In addition to being used in poetry, hiragana allowed the proliferation of prose works from the middle of the 11rd century.

Phoenix Pavilion of Byōdō-in (1052). Kyoto. ©Sergeisemenov

Seated Amida Buddha. First half of the 11th century. Carved wood, lacquer, gilding.

Detail of a screen of a pair, Floating fans on the river. Attributed to the Sotatsu workshop. Early 17th century. Pigments, ink, silver powder and gold leaf.

During the Heian period, members of the Fujiwara family established a hereditary regency system. They dominated not only the political but also the cultural scene, they were remarkable patrons. They were also probably behind the imperial decision to move the capital from Nara to Heian-kyō, present-day Kyotō.

We have no evidence of the civil architecture of this period, because the wooden buildings were replaced over the following centuries or destroyed during the civil wars. However, we can get an idea of ​​it from the Phoenix Pavilion of Byōdō-in (1052) in Kyotō, which was transformed by the Fujiwara into a monastery. The central pavilion, connected to the two wings by two covered galleries, opens onto a garden decorated with a pond decorated with lotuses. It is an evocation of the Pure Land of Amida (Amitābha) where souls are reborn in lotuses. This Pure Land movement is booming and Amida is one of the most popular Buddhas in Japan.

A monumental wooden sculpture of Amida is one of the rare pieces from the Heian period preserved at the MNAA-GUIMET. The particularity of this work is that it is monoxyl (sculpted from a single tree trunk); it was originally supposed to be lacquered and gilded. Amida sits in the lotus position and makes the gesture of absence of fear with his right hand while his face expresses great interiority.
A pair of screens attributed to the Sotatsu workshop (1570-1643), Floating fans on the river, evokes the Uji river, a place associated with the intrigue of Genji Monogatari. The fans evoke the practice of poetic improvisation instituted in the imperial entourage in the 11rd century.
A set of a table and its writing desk, in lacquered wood from the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912), also evokes Uji symbolized by its bridge (one of the three oldest in Japan) and which was a place of retirement and vacation of the aristocracy. The last chapters of Genji Monogatari taking place in Uji, this makes a motif perfectly suited to the decor of furniture intended for writing.
An incense box, decorated with flowers of the four seasons, in maki-e lacquered wood (decor powdered with gold and silver) and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, silver and gold, evokes the refinement of the court at the Heian period. At 11rd century, competitions were organized using mixed species called awaseko. In the Genji Monogatari, Murasaki Shibiku describes these competitions around perfumes among the nobles of the time. These meetings could then turn into social receptions and gambling. Increasingly refined, these games end up giving birth to kōdō, a ceremony comparable to the tea ceremony. Incense, if it served to perfume the atmosphere, also made it possible to impregnate clothing with its scents.

Incense box decorated with flowers of the four seasons. Edo period (1603-1868). Lacquered wood decorated with gold, silver and green gold powder in relief, with gold, silver and mother-of-pearl inlays.

The poet Ono no Komachi. Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815). Edo period. Polychrome printing on paper.

Portrayal of Murasaki Shibiku. Dated from the Kanbun era (1661-1673). Edo period. Ink and colors on paper.

Excluded from political affairs, aristocratic women of the Heian era were cut off from the world. They are cultured, musicians, painters or calligraphers. Free from their time, their lives are focused on the arts. Remarkable observers of the imperial court, they will analyze and describe their feelings as well as those of others. It is interesting to note that their writings which are done in the vernacular language, and therefore considered inferior, have survived and are still read today, perhaps for their introspective writing which transcends history and genres. The poet Ono no Komachi (825-900) is an example of astonishing posterity: famous for her waka (short poems) and for her beauty, considered one of the six geniuses of Japanese poetry, she has entered the legend, inspiring poets, playwrights and painters. The exhibition presents a silk painting attributed to Tosa Mitsunorii (1583-1638) depicting her, dressed and hairstyled according to the fashion of the Heian period. It also appears on prints from the 19rd century, like another poet, Sei Shōnagon (966-1013). Murasaki Shibiku has also been the subject of numerous representations and a painting on paper from the Kanbun era (1661-1673) of the figure holding the brush and writing. A miniature ceremonial dress shows how women's clothing junihitoe (twelve layers), which appeared in the Heian period, superimposed dresses by combining colors; it could weigh up to 30 kilos. Murasaki Shibiku describes, in his work, one of the pastimes of the ladies of the court which consisted of choosing with great care the harmonies of these twelve dresses according to events and the seasons.
The hair of Heian beauties was straight, shiny and immensely long. They were parted in the middle and fell freely over the shoulders in large black cascades. The ideal was for them to fall to the feet.
A six-panel screen of the 16rd-17rd centuries illustrates an episode of Said of Genji, The Tempest (Nowak) and, although painted five centuries later, it evokes Heian costumes and aesthetics. This type of paint (yamato-e) is characterized by great refinement and the use of bright colors; The scenes are processed using a process called “roof removed” which allows the scene inside a building to be seen from above.
Le Genji Monogatari, a long novel in 54 chapters punctuated by 800 waka, enjoyed great success from the start and became a model for learning the waka. It is said that Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), unifier of Japan, himself copied the book of commentaries on the Said of Genji which belonged to one of his wife's servants. The work became, over time, a model of composition and became a symbol of the culture of the nobility. It has continued to be copied and illustrated and even printed, like the xylographed example from the 19thrd century which is on display. The Tosa school, in particular, will take up the theme and illustrate it. A scroll, polychrome ink on paper and gold leaf, from the 19rd century, evokes scenes inspired by the novel. One of them shows a dance rehearsal accompanied by musicians playing the shō (mouth organ). Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), one of the greatest representatives of Japanese prints, produces a series of five prints on the theme of Genji Monogatari which contributed to renewing the imagination around the novel. It is interesting to note that the artist takes up and respects the aesthetics of the 12rd century.

The Tempest (Nowaki). Detail of a six-panel screen. Edo period. Late 17th century-early 18th century. Ink, colors, gold and gold leaf on paper.

Murasaki Shibiku. Said of Genji. Edo period. First half of the 19th century. Xylographic print.

Dance rehearsal scene accompanied by shō players. Detail of a scroll. Edo period. Tosa School. 19th century. Polychrome inks on paper and gold leaf.

A hexagonal lacquer box decorated with young girls in a garden is remarkable for the quality of the inlays of precious metals, red and black lacquer on a gold powder background but also because it was part of the collection of Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793) and survived the Revolution.
A triptych by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), specialized in the representation of beautiful women and courtesans, interprets, by parodying, a scene from book 4 (Evening Beauty) Of the Genji Monogatari, in the triptych The double pillow. It should be noted that the characters are here dressed in contemporary fashion from the 19rd Japanese century.
Le Said of Genji continues to inspire artists today and we even find it in manga, like that of Waki ​​Yamato (born in 1948), Asaki yume mishi-Genji Monogatari, which was published in the 1980s or Genji Monogatari by Eiko Hanamura (1929-2020) published in 2019.

Hexagonal box decorated with young girls in a garden (scene from book 23 of The Tale of Genji). Edo period. 18th century. Lacquered wood, hiramaki decoration, gold and silver takamaki-e, gold inlays, red and black lacquer.

The double pillow (detail). Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). Edo period, circa 1794. Triptych of prints, polychrome printing on paper.

Waki Yamato (born 1948), Cover of Asaki yume mishi-Genji Monogatari. Kodansha Edition. 1980.

A palanquin from the end of the 18th centuryrd century, with the arms of the Tokugawa clan (three petals facing inwards), is entirely covered in black lacquer with an exterior floral decoration executed in gold lacquer. The interior, lined with wallpaper, presents scenes from Said of Genji made on a gold background. This type of luxurious palanquin was reserved for the highest aristocracy of the Edo period (1600-1868).

The history of weaving Nishijin-ori dates back to the Heian period with a weaving workshop attached to the imperial court. Tissues Nichijin-ori have always benefited from the most advanced weaving techniques over the centuries.
The complexity and sophistication of the weaving structures, the density of the patterns or the variety and number of colored threads are all traditional techniques of an unrivaled level. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japanese weavers were introduced to the jacquard loom technique in France in 1872. The Jacquard loom, developed by the French inventor Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752 -1834), is a mechanical loom programmable using punched cards. This machine made it possible to quickly weave complex patterns. These Jacquard looms greatly increased productivity and helped modernize the Japanese textile industry, leading to the development of nishijin-ori.

Palanquin with the arms of the Tokugawa clan. Edo period. Late 18th century. Black and gold lacquered wood, chiseled metal, interior lined with wallpaper reproducing scenes from The Tale of Genji.

Itaro Yamaguchi. Screen curtain. Silk and gold thread, paperback decoration. Fabric shaped and woven on a jacquard mechanical loom.

Itaro yamaguchi. Ceremonial kimono. Silk, leaf and gold threads, paperback decoration. Fabric shaped and woven on a jacquard mechanical loom.

Master weaver Yamaguchi Itaro (1901-2007), on the eve of his seventieth birthday, decided to weave only for his pleasure and devoted the last ten years of his life to the creation of four scrolls illustrating The Tale of Genji, woven reproductions of those painted, preserved in two Japanese museums and national treasures. He decided to donate his four woven scrolls from Said of Genji to France as a token of its gratitude for the rescue of nishijin-ori thanks to French Jacquard loom technology. The first and second scrolls were given in 1995, followed in 2002 by the third, while the fourth and final scroll was given in 2008 after the death of the Master.

The last room is devoted to the works of Master Yamaguchi including the four scrolls of Said of Genji. A screen curtain inspired by those of the Heian period shows the virtuosity of the Master, mixing silk and gold threads with brocade decoration. This type of screen curtain mounted on a portable wooden support was used to divide rooms in the Heian period. Their large painted or woven decorations decorated the interiors of the aristocracy. 90 cm to 120 cm high, they were supposed to hide people, the nobles sitting all day on the mats or carpets. Likewise, a ceremonial kimono, decorated with peach blossom embroidery, combines silk threads, gold threads and gold leaves. These remarkable pieces were woven on a jacquard power loom.

To create the four scrolls, Master Yamaguchi chose silk threads dyed in an infinite number of color gradients in order to obtain the desired effects. He made one or more preparatory drawings reproducing the original painting, then completed the mapping before proceeding to stitch the boxes to create the weaving. Likewise, for certain renderings such as the transparency effect, he carried out numerous tests. He used a jacquard loom combined with a classic “lift-and-drop” loom and improved several weaving methods from around the world which he tried to push towards their perfection. For him, “the history of nishijin-ori is a quest for perfection, the desire to synthesize the best processes and bring them to their climax.
As on the painted scrolls, the nineteen scenes and calligraphic texts are reproduced with incredible precision and finesse. Additionally, Master Yamaguchi must have imagined the colors as they were originally painted because, on scrolls that are a thousand years old, the colors have faded a bit.

The barrier guard post (Sekiya). Tales of Genji, Book 15.

The fourth reel shows The barrier guard post (Sekiya) or the procession of Utsusemi and the procession of Genji accidentally meet at the Osaka barrier. The characters and the mountains with autumnal foliage seem to be bathed in a golden mist due to the underlying gold threads.

The Oak 1 (Kashiwagi 1). Tales of Genji, Book 36.

The following episode, The Oak 1 (Kashiwagi 1), is extremely constructed and colorful while the attitude of the characters reflects a suffocating sadness: Genji's wife, Onna San no Miya, has just given birth to an illegitimate child and his father, dressed in black, at the center of the composition, laments while Genji, at the bottom of the triangle formed by the three protagonists, wonders if this is not a punishment from destiny for his youthful mistakes. Pursue.

The Oak 2 (Kashiwagi 2). The Tale of Genji, Book 36.

The Oak 2 (Kashiwagi 2) shows Kashiwagi, the child's father, on his deathbed, confiding in a friend. The scene, although oppressive, is illuminated by the multiplicity of fabrics (blinds, curtains, screens, costumes of the ladies in waiting) whose different aspects and textures Yamaguchi has rendered.

The Bell Cricket 1 (Suzumushi 1). The Tale of Genji, Book 38.

The third roll demonstrates innovations in weaving with a remarkable transparency effect. For The Bell Cricket 1 (Suzuki 1) we see Onna San no Miya, who has become a nun, chanting. She is dressed in a white dress over which she wears another transparent garment and the folds of the dress underneath show through and show different reflections depending on the angle of view. This was possible thanks to a surface layer made with a twisted platinum wire in a lower density for a very fine finish.

The Bamboo River 1 (Takekawa 1). The Tale of Genji, Book 44.

The Bamboo River 1 (Takekawa 1) of the first scroll, shows Kaoru, son of Genji, waiting outside a residence whose garden is decorated with a young plum tree in flower on a branch of which, a warbler launches its first song; So we are in spring. Here the screen curtains are seen both protruding and through the privacy screen made of bamboo slats, thus playing with the transparency of the latter.

next The Bamboo River 2 (Takekawa 2). Book 44.

In the next scene The Bamboo River 2 (Takekawa 2), we see two young princesses playing a game of go while they are watched from outside by a young man. A cherry tree in full bloom occupies the entire center of the composition and its rendering can appear white or pink depending on the angle of view.

Virginia creeper branches 1 (Yadorigi 1). The Tale of Genji, Book 49.

In Virginia creeper branches 1 (Yadorigi 1) of the second roll, the emperor is shown playing a game of go in the company of a young man, with the marriage of one of his daughters at stake. The apartment is decorated with lacquer furniture decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays and, to create an effect of shine, a very thin sheet of mother-of-pearl has been woven into the frame. The scene, Virginia creeper branches 2 (Yadorigi 2) illustrates the moment when Niou Miya is captivated by the beauty of Naka no Miki. The profusion of characters, each more richly dressed than the last, and the sumptuous decor indicate a prestigious residence

Virginia creeper branches 3 (Yadorigi 3). The Tale of Genji, Book 49.

The scene, Virginia creeper branches 3 (Yadorigi 3), is imbued with a certain coldness accentuated by the white of the balustrade and the beige background of the floor. Niou Miya plays the biwa to comfort Naka no Miki but the characters' expressions are rather sad and the whole thing evokes a cold autumn day.

Pavilion 2 (Azumaya 2). The Tale of Genji, Book 50.

From the same scroll, Pavilion 2 (Azumaya 2) shows Kaoru, sitting on the outdoor veranda; the woven bamboo fence was woven on gold leaf paper to create irregularities and an effect of light in contrast with the texture of the wooden door.

Around the room, enlargements of the master's drawings on graph paper are displayed, mounted as screens. A final showcase displays Master Yamaguchi’s magnifying glass and writing desk.


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