Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
Unfurling a Thousand Years of Gods, Demons and Romance
Published: December 1, 2011
“Storytelling in Japanese Art,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a captivating combination of show and tell, read and look. Curatorially speaking, the exhibition takes us gently in hand and, through text panels, captions and diagrams, reveals the narrative side of Japanese art with memorable clarity.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletshcer Fund
It has been organized by Masako Watanabe, a senior research associate in the Met’s Asian art department, and while installed in the museum’s Japanese permanent-collection galleries, it is a temporary show full of significant loans. Illuminating the tales played out in a lavish assortment of hand scrolls, hanging scrolls, screens and books, the exhibition, with its explications and elucidations, gives didacticism a good name. It deserves return visits, especially for its second rotation, starting Feb. 8, when, due to fragility, several hand scrolls will be wound to different scenes and five screens will be replaced by others.
The show contains more than 100 works that span mostly from the 13th to the 19th centuries. At its core are some 20 hand scrolls, or emaki, an ingenious medium evolved from the illustrated sutras that began landing in Japan from China in the eighth century as part of the spread of Buddhism. While full of wonderfully observed natural details, Japanese hand scrolls, unlike their Chinese precedents, developed less as vehicles for pure landscape than as stages on which to unfurl human dramas of all kinds, in something like real time and space. In the hands of Japanese artists the scrolls were tantamount to primitive films. Their fluidity, emotional expressiveness and sense of action and lived experience give them an uncannily contemporary immediacy.
This is established at the start of the show with a masterpiece: the five scrolls known as the “Illustrated Legends of the Kitano Tenjin Shrine,” a sublime example of Chinese-style ink painting highlighted with translucent washes of color from the 13th-century Kamakura period. Acquired in 1925, these scrolls constitute one of the Met’s great paintings, but they have never been exhibited together before, and this alone makes “Storytelling in Japanese Art” a must-see.
With seductive intimacy the scrolls recount the life and turbulent afterlife of Sugawara Michizane, a ninth-century poet-statesman said to have died of a broken heart after being unjustly slandered. The tale includes the destruction unleashed by his angry spirit (floods, fire, shattered buildings, some of it delivered by a magnificent black-clad thunder god) and the dangerous journey to hell and back by Nichizo, an intrepid acolyte sent to divine how to placate Michizane. (It takes a temple.)
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. All this is played out in a sparsely limned landscape whose mutations from gentle to spiked to lunar make it a star in its own right.
A similarly spare, evocative landscape also figures in “A Long Tale for an Autumn Night,” another ink-and-color painting from around 1400. Its anguished plot concerns an aspiring monk’s love for a beautiful boy and ends, as this genre usually did, with the death of the boy, who is revealed to be a manifestation of the bodhisattva Kannon.
“Storytelling in Japanese Art” is not a historically thorough survey. Its main goal is to follow the mingling of different narrative and pictorial genres and styles. Its arrangement is as much thematic as chronological, with groupings of different works from different centuries attesting to the continuing attraction that certain stories exerted on the imagination.
In the section devoted to “The Tale of Genji,” the 12th-century novel that is among Japan’s greatest contributions to world literature, for example, modest books and hand scrolls are grouped around a pair of Edo-period screens by the 16th-century master Kano Soshu like small craft around a magnificent ocean liner.
And early in the exhibition En No Gyoja, the legendary founder of a mountain-based asceticism combining aspects of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs known as Shugendo, moves through several mediums, including intentional hanging scrolls and what might be called accidental ones, those made from fragments excised from hand scrolls and mounted on textiles, as well as intact hand scrolls. He is especially appealing in a Kamakura-period hand scroll fragment about the history of the Jin’oji Temple. It shows him in a garden with low-flying clouds conversing with a local deity, while a visiting Korean god alights on the top of a pine tree, causing one of En No Gyoja’s loyal servant-demons to fall to his knees.
From there the show traces the pictorial life of various cherished narratives from medium to medium. Sacred tales about building temples or the spiritual evolution of semidivine beings give way to celebrations of rulers’ lives, epic military battles or endlessly triangulating romances whose female participants usually pay the price. In the late-16th-century hand scroll “The Tale of Gio” the title character, a dancer, generously allows another woman to perform for her patron in a green-carpeted pavilion, and of course her life ends up in ruins. Here, as in later works throughout the show, free-hand ink painting gives way to stiffer figuration and bright opaque colors, and open landscapes are more and more punctuated by steeply tilted buildings whose sumptuous interiors become central.
Partly because of the exhibition’s placement in the permanent-collection galleries, Ms. Watanabe has supplemented the scrolls, books and screens with works in other mediums. A lacquer box and a kimono decorated with images of books suggest the high value placed on literature, and lacquer stirrups and saddles are placed near several screens recounting historic battles that had assumed mythic status in Japanese culture. They teem with mounted soldiers and archers and, according to the label, can depict up to 80 separate episodes.
If you wonder what a six-legged red-lacquer storage case is doing in the show, look no farther than the pair of painted screens next to it. On one a nearly identical case is boldly outlined in ink. According to the label a brave samurai cut off the arm of a wicked demon and hid it the case, until the demon returned in the guise of the warrior’s mother and tricked him out it. On the second screen the demon, rendered larger than life with exaggerated vigor, is shown speeding away, clutching her lividly red arm. The work’s creator, Shibata Zeshin (1807-91), was known internationally during his lifetime as a master of lacquer; a nearby preparatory study for the image is just as large, but less strained.
The same storage case, this time in black, appears in the show’s final gallery in “Night Parade of 100 Demons,” where it is being torn apart by one of the hand scroll’s wonderfully grotesque creatures in an effort to free several more of his ilk trapped inside. This final gallery is dominated by depictions of anthropomorphized animals, among them the frolicking creatures on a 12th-century hanging scroll that was excised from a set of 12th-century hand scrolls revered in Japan as one of the starting points of manga. Also here is “The Tale of Mice,” one of several impressive loans from the New York Public Library, with its cast of well-dressed white rodents. One wonders if Art Spiegelman knew of its existence when he undertook “Maus,” his graphic novel of Jewish mice and Nazi cats.
“The Tale of Mice” is one of many points in “Storytelling in Japanese Art” where you may find yourself wondering if Japan, despite its small size, has contributed far more than its share to today’s popular culture. There is no hard science by which to arrive at a definitive answer. Still, this fascinating show reverberates with that tantalizing possibility.