Storytelling in Japanese Art : The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Storytelling in Japanese Art
November 19, 2011 – May 6, 2012
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York
Exhibition Page

In New York for Christmas? The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a fascinating exhibition of Japanese paintings and handscrolls highlighting the importance of narrative in Japanese art, a tradition that continues in today’s episodic and popular manga format. The emaki, or handscroll,  unfolds in dramatic sequences, somewhat akin to scenes in a film, but in intimate relationship with the viewer: “Their fluidity, emotional expressiveness and sense of action and lived experience give them an uncannily contemporary immediacy.”

From the Met Collection, that of the New York public library and private collections, the exhibition features rare works from the 12th and 13th centuries, one important series of five scrolls, The Legends of Kitano Shrine, being shown together for the first time. Kitano Shrine is one of the Shinto Shrines erected in honor of Sugawara no Michizane, a leading scholar and imperial official of the Heian Period. Political machinations saw Michizane die in exile. The Imperial Court was plagued thereafter with a series of disasters blamed on the angry and vengeful spirit of Michizane. Part of the scrolls depict the journey of the monk Nichizo to seek out the disturbed spirit and discover what might pacify him: “Nichizo’s pictorially breathtaking odyssey involves help from both monks and demons, a pause to pray in a cave (dragon notwithstanding) and braving a fabulous fire-breathing monster with eight heads and nine tails who guards the fiery furnace that is hell.”

There is a room devoted to the Tale of Genji, the 11th century romantic novel that is regarded as one of the world’s most significant pieces of literature. Mastery of narrative and connoisseurship of literature was one of the necessary accomplishments of the court and aristocracy providing an endless source of metaphorical motifs for artists from all genres. An innocently decorative curtain on this box for tea ceremony implements in the Lesley Kehoe Galleries’ collection refers to the protocol of keeping women alluringly hidden behind these brocade barriers. It specifically references an episode in Tales of Genji when Genji mischievously releases a host of fireflies to expose the beauty of a woman hidden behind its folds. Cultural difference and the discoveries this provides, is surely one of the greatest pleasures of the artistic pursuit.

The exhibition of paintings is complemented by objects of relevance to the stories – a red lacquer storage box similar to the one in which the severed arm of the demon of Rashomon bridge was kept, for example. The supernatural occurrences at Rashomon bridge formed the backdrop for the 1950 movie of the same name by leading director Akira Kurosawa,  Westernized in 1964 as The Outrage with Paul Newman. The sprightly animation of  frolicking animals in the famous 12th century ‘Animal caricatures’ (choju giga) and the graphic Tale of Mice cause the New York Times reviewer to wonder “if Japan, despite its small size, has contributed far more than its share to today’s popular culture.” (Read Full article from the NYTimes)

Exhibition Catalgoue is available to purchase from the Met book shop online – here