Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints, and Keeping in Touch: The Culture of Letter-Writing in Japan
The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens’ new exhibit, “Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints,” focuses on two books: the 11th-century novel “The Tale of Genji” and its weirder, 19th-century reimagining “A Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki.” The first stands among the world’s earliest novels, written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the emperor’s ladyin-waiting at Kyoto’s imperial court. It concerns a handsome but insatiable Japanese prince who sleeps with one love interest after another. The other book one is a time-warped, illustrated parody set amid the samurais of Japan’s 15th century, with characters who flaunt the latest in19th-century fashion.
The 54-chapter “Tale of Genji” has for the past millennium supplied inspiration for movies, Kabuki theater, Noh plays, anime, fine arts, manga, playing cards and board games. Stories of Genji the Lothario have also wound their way into Japanese woodblock prints and book illustrations, 60 examples of which are on display through When: Through May 18 Where: Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Road, Delray Beach Cost: $8-$14 Contact: 561-495-0233 or Morikami.org May18 at the Morikami. The pieces are on loan from Claremont, California’s Scripps College and from private collectors in Pasadena.
“This is the Shakespeare of Japanese literature,” says Veljko Dujin, the Morikami’s curator of collections, during a tour of the exhibit. “Youcouldn’t escape it. It was mass-produced into every kind of medium, which is why it’s so popular now. The woodblock prints that illustrated parts of the book cost as much as a modern-day concert poster.”
Much of the sprawling Genji art here is drawn from “A Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki,” poet Ryutei Tanehiko’s set of serialized books, written between 1829 and 1842 with popular printmaker Utagawa Kunisada. Its central figure is the gallivanting Genji surrogate Mitsuuji, seen in Kuni- sada’s enchanting prints wandering into Kabuki theaters with beautiful women (“Stylish Gentle Genji — Theater Dressing Room”); boating in springtime; recovering stolen “Ashikaga swords” with a lover; or contemplating the winter as Japanese children have snowball fights and craft snow-frog creatures (the diptych “The Eleventh Month”).
“This was elite living,” Dujin says. “Lives were filled with poetry, appreciations of ceramics and writing. But what has made Genji so enduring is his crossover appeal. You can pluck him out of his original time period andmake him a modern figure.”
A companion exhibit, “Keeping in Touch: The Culture of Letter-Writing in Japan,” contains roughly 100 Japanese writing tools, inkstones, paper and other stationery, all of which appears frequently in the nearby Genji illustrations. The collection spans fifth-century Chinese earthenware to New Year’s Day postcards and 19th-century Japanese writing boxes, which were ornate and lacquered containers for holding inkstones, water droppers, paintbrushes and pens.
“We’ve wanted to put this exhibit on for a long time,” Dujin says. “‘The Tale of Genji’ is just filled with letters of correspondence that characters would write to other characters. And besides, whenwasthelast time you even mailed a letter to someone? This is a throwback to a time when mail carried a personalized touch.”