Vegder's Blog

April 9, 2013

Genji, Not Genji – Part Two: The Tosa and Kano Schools

Today, the ninth of April, 2013, is a fine day to start this new post. Like all of the others, I haven’t the slightest what I am trying to do. Well, maybe the slightest. Therefore this posting may look a bit jumbled, disorganized and nonsensical for a while, but I can guarantee you that by the time I have filled it out it will definitely still look jumbled, disorganized and nonsensical, only more so. That is just the way my mind works. I draw connections that leave others stupefied. So, get ready. Here it comes. Oh… and by the way, please come back often to see what else I have added to the pile. In time it may make a little more sense – hopefully.

Let’s start with a magnificent 6-panel screen from the IMA – There is a wonderful screen in the Indianapolis Museum of Art which depicts several scenes from The Tale of Genji. It is attributed to the School of Matabei and dates from ca. 1650. It dislpays an aerial perspective and a very liberal use of golden clouds. I’ll discuss the use of these techniques later. There will also be some superfluous information about Matabei, too. But for now, let’s just enjoy the view.

IMA_School_of_Matabei_ca.1650_7b© Indianapolis Museum of Art

Late Heian painters blew the lid off their art – Sometime in the 11th century or somewhat before Japanese artists created a new style all their own. We now refer to it as Yamato-e.They followed several previous traditions, like telling a tale on a long narrow scroll. These might be 13″ high and 30′ long or longer. This format originated in China and was adopted/adapted by the Japanese. The Chinese had used some color on some of their scrolls, but the Japanese caked it on in a style called tsukuri or make-up. It was bright and it was colorful and it suited the age. But the one thing which truly broke with the past was the fact that the Japanese painted the interiors of houses and building from the vantage point of someone floating in the sky, looking down at the scene. They accomplished this feat by removing the roofs of the buildings and tilting the backgrounds to make everything fit their visual needs – and it worked. Genius! Pure genius! Pure Japanese genius!

You have to ask yourself, who was the first artist to invent this style? We don’t know for sure. But what we do know is that the oldest scrolls following this pattern belong to the Reimeikai Foundation and these illustrate scenes from The Tale of Genji. They are attributed to Fujiwara no Takayoshi.  Here is a detail from one of them illustrating a scene from Chapter 49, Yadorigi, The Ivy, where Prince Niou is performing for Naka no Kimi.


“His Highness saw in this no sign of anything wrong in their friendship, but, given his own proclivities, he must have suspected that there was more to it than that.

The plume grass stood out prettily in the already wintry garden nearby, the plumes seemed to beckon like hands, while the stems not yet in head made strings of perilously swaying dewdrop pearls – a common sight, of course, but there was something especially affecting then about the evening breeze.

I feel a sadness from it stem not yet in plume among these grasses,
    beckoning like waving sleeves moistened already with dew,’

he murmured as he sat there playing a biwa, wearing only a dress cloak over his pleasantly soft garments. It was a piece in the ōshiki mode, one so moving that she, who played the biwa, too, could not long remain angry, instead she leaned on her armrest to peer at him for a moment around her low curtain, in a manner so appealing that one longed to see more.”

The one thing we can be sure of is that these scrolls are as true to the text of Murasaki Shikibu as you will find anywhere. They have not been corrupted by time or mischief. They are Genji, unexpurgated, unadulterated, and unburdened with unnecessary, anachronistic elements placing them out of time and place.

An out-of-body experience – I find it funny that people who describe out-of-body experiences often say they had the sensation of watching themselves and others from above while being resuscitated. They were floating up there somewhere in the vicinity, unseen and unnoticed. The question: How in the world did the first man to create a Yamato-e get his idea? I am not saying this is how he got the idea, but still…  This is an odd coincidence.

A note of warning: I have made no attempt to show examples from The Tale of Genji in any kind of sequential order. I have chosen images that appealed to me and that I hope will appeal to you. Nor have I made an attempt to follow a strict chronological order when it came to Tosa School artists and others tacked on to this post. Although I must say that generally I have tried to follow a basic timeline, but it hasn’t been easy – or necessary for that matter. My opinion. Purists might disagree, but if they can break free of thinking in a linear manner they might just learn something. However, they probably already know this stuff and it won’t tell or show them anything they didn’t already know. But if you are a novice, like I am, then you might enjoy this post more than they will. Have at it.

That said, let’s move on to the Tosa School of painters and what they did with Genji. The Tosa painters seem to follow the pure path when illustrating Genji. The image shown below is from the collection at Harvard and shows a scene from Chapter 6, The Safflower or Suetsumuhana. It is one example from an album created by Tosa Mitsunobu (土佐光信: ca. 1434 to ca. 1525). The album is said to date from ca. 1509-10. Notice the missing roof and the golden clouds which have lost much of their original luster.

Harvard_Safflower_Genji_Tosa_Mitsunobu_ca.1509_1510_7c   © Harvard University

“It may be cruel to go through her costume, but the old romances always start out by describing a character’s clothes. Over a deplorably faded layering of sanctioned rose she wore a dress gown dark with grime and, over that, a richly glossy, scented coat of sable pelts – no doubt distinguished attire in ages past buy a shockingly eccentric getup for a lady who after all was still young. Her face showed how cold she would be without the furs, though and he felt sorry for her.

He, too, felt bereft of speech when he got nothing in reply, but he tried conversing with her to test her silence. Even the way she put her hand to her mouth in acute embarrassment was so rustic and antiquated that it minded him of the way officials in procession on ceremonial occasions held their arms, and her accompanying smile was thoroughly disconcerting. At once pained and sympathetic, he hastily made ready to depart.”

As Genji prepared to leave he “…had a man of his brush off a heavily burdened orange tree, at which a pine broke free, too, as though in  defiance, and with a swish shed tumbling billows of snow.” (Royall Tyler translation)

There is another Tosa painting of an early scene in Chapter 6 in which Genji steals into the grounds of the mansion of Suetsumuhana to hear her play the kin. It appears in the two far right panels of another 6-panel screen which is part of the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It is dated to 1700-1750.

AGNSW_Genji_listens_to_the_kin_Ch.6_no.7bArt Gallery of New South Wales – below is a larger detail for better viewing.

“She played very softly. It was quite nice. Not that she was any sort of master, but her instrument was so superb in tone that Genji was not displeased by what he had heard.” (This is another Royall Tyler translation.)


Another example or two from the album at Harvard will help bring home another point: You can look at Genji illustrations and know which chapter and scene they represent. For example, there is the one for Chapter 53, The Writing Lesson, Tenarai, as shown below. This is the title given at Harvard. Royall Tyler calls it Writing Practice and adds that it “…means not just practicing calligraphy by copying out model examples but also writing out poems, including new ones of one’s own, for pleasure or consolation.”

Harvard_The_Writing_Lesson_Tenarai_Mitsunobu_7b   © Harvard University

The term ‘writing practice‘, which gives its name to this chapter is only mentioned sparingly. Perhaps this passage is the one that refers to the album leaf shown above:

“The New Year came, though with no sign of spring, and the very silence of the frozen streams inspired melancholy, until despite all sh had against teh man who said he had ‘never lost the way to be lost in you,’ she found that she still could not forget that time:

Gaze on though I may at snowy fields and mountains under a dark sky,
             all those things of long ago sadden me again today.’

she wrote, as so often between her devotions seeking consolation in writing practice. She wondered whether anyone remembered her, now that a New Year had come since she vanished from the world.”

There is another poem in this chapter which struck me, not because of what it meant at the time it was written, but because of what it means to me after having discussing the roof-removal motif. It is almost as though Lady Murasaki could have known how her works would be interpreted artistically.

Then I shall watch on, till behind the mountains’ rim the bright moon goes down,
     and be blessed perhaps like rays slipping through your chamber roof.”

Or Chapter 46, Beneath the Oak, Shii ga Moto.

Harvard_Beneath_the_Oak_Shii_ga_Moto_Ch._46_Mitsunobu_7b   © Harvard University

Let’s hope this doesn’t snowball out of control – The three images shown below are illustrations to Chapter 20, ‘The Bluebell’, Asagao.

Harvard_Genji_Chapter_20_Bluebell_snowball_7   © Harvard University

“The snow was very deep by now, and more was falling. The waning light set off pine and bamboo prettily from one another, and Genji’s face took on a clever glow. ‘More than the glory of flowers and fall leaves that season by season capture everyone’s heart, it is the night sky in winter, with snow aglitter beneath a brilliant moon, that in the absence of all color speaks to me strangely and carries my thoughts beyond this world, there is no higher wonder or delight. Whoever called it dreary understands nothing.’

He had the blinds rolled up. The moon illumined all before them in its single color, while the garden shivered under the weight of snow, the brook uttered pathetic sobs, and desolate ice lay across the lake. Genji had the page girls go down and roll a snowball. Their charming figures and hair gleamed in the moonlight, while the bigger, more knowing ones were lovely in their varied loosely worn gowns and their night night service wear with the sashes half undone, meanwhile their hair, far longer than their gowns, stood out strikingly against the white of the snow. The little ones were a pleasure to watch running about happily, dropping their fans and showing their excited faces. They wanted to roll the snowball even bigger, but for all their struggles it would not budge. Some of them sat on the east end of the veranda, laughing nervously.”


Field_Museum_Asagao_snowball_7   © The Field Museum -This image is described at the Field Museum web site as being a woodblock print. However, from here it looks like a painting.

Later Tosa School paintings

Bad boy Matabei – [Text to follow] – Below is a Kokei print of Ukiyo Matabei as portrayed by Bando Mitsugorō IX in the play Keisei Hangonko.


While we are on the topic of raising the roof – I started thinking about how innovative this roofless motif was, but then I also started thinking about certain Western art forms which are similar. There are architectural drawings, architectural models, and doll houses. Each of these in there own way seem to relate to a style which made its appearance in 12th century Japan. Let’s start with ancient Egypt. There is a small model of a cattle stable in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It comes from the tomb of Meketre from ca. 1981-75 B.C. There were 24 such models made of painted plaster and wood found showing various aspect of life as it was at that time. Below is stable for cattle.


Let the walls fall away – Do those intimate images by Tosa Mitsunobu remind you of anything? Not intimate in the sexual sense, but rather in the invasive “I can see what you are doing” kind of sense. An invasion of their privacy which you get when you read the novel. Those images also spark the imagination of the viewer. You don’t need the words. You don’t even need to know who Lady Murasaki was, when she lived, or what she had written. The artist, by himself, can feed your own personal flights of fancy.

What else do Mitsunobu’s album leaves remind you of? Where else can the mind run as freely once you have removed the roof, or, in this case, some of the walls? The answer: the doll house, the maison de poupées, the poppenhuis, the casa delle bambole. Below is the doll house of Petronella Dunois in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It dates from approximately ten years after the death of Rembrandt in 1666 and is a displays a fine example of how the wealthy merchant class must have lived. However, like the illustrations to The Tale of Genji, it doesn’t take an art historian or sophisticate to enjoy what it has to offer. All it takes is an imagination and the time it takes to indulge it. The ceiling may still be there, but the front wall is missing and the effect is pretty much the same. All this does is reinforce my faith in the skill and creativity of the first artist who gave us the concept of the Yamato-e, only now it is echoed in the fanciful production of an anonymous 17th century Dutch craftsman.

Rijksmuseum_poppenhuis_van_Petronella_Dunois_ca.1676_7b   The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Of course you can argue with me about this comparison – one is tactile, the other is not – one is two-dimensional, the other has three dimensions. Quibble, quibble, quibble – I’ll stand my ground until convinced otherwise.

Isn’t it ironic that the items that were placed in ancient Egyptian tombs were meant for use in the afterlife? Now that is what I call a real out-of-body experience.

Elevation – This is a term used for an architectural drawing as seen on a vertical plane. I mention this because there is a drawing by Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817) of the Tsarskoe Selo in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It shows one of the main facades of the palace, but it also shows a diagram of the interior of one of the floors as seen from above sans roof. The comparison to Yamato-e should be clear. It is in my mind.


If you use your imagination you can conjure up a crowd of early 19th century Russian aristocrats passing through or idling in these spacious rooms while attending a grand ball – a la Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The dashing cavalry men and overstuffed generals in their dress uniforms all covered in gold epaulets, medals and ribbons, the women in their haute couture dresses sweeping the floors as they swirled about. How does this differ from looking in on late Heian culture from above? – other than in style, mode of dress, architecture, etc. Remember: Don’t quibble. I’ll brook no quibbling, you hear! Other than those differences things are pretty much the same.

Before I quit beating this dead horse – As luck would have it, I found an architectural model, an ‘interior maquette’ (Интерьерный макет) at commons.wikimedia. It was posted there by Владимир Фоминцев. How convenient that it will continue my comparisons with Yamato-e into our contemporary world. See for yourself.


Remember there is much more to come. So, please return often and write me if you have any comments or ideas. Thanks! Just try not to quibble – pleeeeze.


For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!

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