Seductions of Japanese Narrative Art: La Tribune India


BN Goswamy

Under whose reign did a woman of rather less distinguished lineage capture the emperor’s heart and enjoy his favor above all other imperial wives and concubines?

Opening words of the 11th century classic,

‘The Tale of Genji’, as quoted in the Foreword

(Narrative images) are visually and aesthetically engaging, serve as visual aids in teaching good moral conduct, provide mnemonic devices for learning classical texts, convey good wishes for a happy marriage and offspring abundant, legitimize notions of authority or carry coded criticisms of unjust people. to reign.

Extract from an introductory essay from the Exhibition Catalog

Very soon after arriving in Zurich a few months ago, a few hours later in fact, I heard about the sparkling new exhibition at the Rietberg Museum. ‘You must see it’ was the friendly but pointed recommendation of my hosts. Getting to the exhibit wasn’t going to be difficult since the event I had attended – a two-day symposium with Indian painting at its center – was in this same museum. But I put seeing it on the back burner in my mind. The title – “Love, Fight, Feast” – did not bring me much, nor the fact that it was about narrative art, because the genre was not new, Indian painting is full of it: vast series based on great epics like the Ramayana, and Puranas like the Bhagavata, or endless and beautifully told tales like the Shuka-saptati or the Kalakacharya Katha. In the end, however, I went, berating myself, to see the show with a few colleagues. And, to put it bluntly, I was blown away.

Private collection, Museum of Art and History, Brussels; young woman dreaming of the “stories of Ise”, by Hosoda Eishi (1756-1829). Edo period. English Museum.

Gallery after gallery were filled – in the most elegant way possible, sensitive to space, context and rhythm – works that shone: this is the word that most easily comes to mind. Small miniatures, long parchments, delicate engravings, lacquered boxes for storing works of art, writing boxes, royal palanquins, elegant costumes, installations that literally move, so to speak. Section followed by a carefully separated and yet linked section. Historiography and mass production; Poets in motion; Love and intrigue, parody and entertainment, heroes vying for power and glory; Competition with the Demons: they were all there. There were works that spit fire, lifted up like energy; others soft like moonlight, where young women quietly dreamed of absent lovers; still others where exuberant “picture contests” took place, or skillfully appointed mansions marked with sharp-angled views, seen from inside and outside, from above and below. Pictures of lively parties and heroic deeds, of alluring nayika girls and simple servants, all came together. And, in a strange way, over almost everything hovered the spirit of the first of all novels, “The Tale of Genji”, written by Murasaki Shikibu, a maid of honor, in the 11th century. Painters and poets seem to have steeped themselves in ancient stories, and then soared with them. Long scrolls filled with texts and images and seals adorned lavish quarters and humble homes. Here, a poet, seeing the imposing snow-covered mountain, might exclaim: “A summit that ignores / all seasons: it is Fuji / What month is it, then / only spots of white speckled with fawn / should betray a snowfall? “

“Saving from drowning” – fragment of a parchment from the Kannon Sutra. Muromachi period, 1538. National Museum of Asian Arts, Paris

Elsewhere, another, challenged to compose a poem of five lines, each led by a syllable of the word “iris” (obviously lost in translation), might break into words like this: “In that familiar pretty dress, I am / Reminder of the beloved bride / whom I left behind, stretching far away / Sadness, the hem of travels.

Detail of ‘A branch of sacred evergreens’. From the Tale of Genji, Edo period.

There were works – lovers coming out of a palace on tiptoe, a young girl riding on her lover’s shoulder, for example – that didn’t require much effort to assimilate and understand them, but others – like Avalokiteshwara Miraculously Saving People from Death by Drowning, a folio from the Kannon Sutra – which required careful decoding and a clean look. As insignificant as it may sound here, I was constantly reminded of a time, a long time ago, when, while stationed in Gaya, Bihar, I would go to a public library to read the very captivating “The Conte du Genji ”, naturally translated from Japanese into English but with a few erotic passages rendered, discreetly, in Latin.

The more we saw – and we spent nearly two hours inside the exhibition – the more we wondered what it took to put on a show of this size. The scholarship of the three curators – Khanh Trinh, Estelle Bauer, Melanie Trede – aside, the list of lenders at the exhibition – institutions and collectors – was astounding, filling completely like two tightly printed columns on one page. At the same time, one could not but admire, if not envy, the dedication of the exhibition staff. The conviviality of the atmosphere created for the spectators was, as always in this museum, palpable. In this case, however, I was really struck by the in-depth knowledge and helpfulness of the guide who guided us through the show: Penelope Tunstall. The name stuck in my mind for more than one reason. At one point, as she was showing us something in an illustrated manuscript set up in a display case, she moved a finger across the top of the glass top, and the sheet changed, moving on to the next. Intrigued by the technology – showing bound manuscripts is always a challenge – I turned to ask if we could find out more about it. “I’ll find out,” she said. And really, while we were still gathering our things at the end of the exhibition tour, she joined us, having located the promised information and gave it to me: name, phone number, location, of “the inventor.” », So speak.

Just then a lively five-year-old boy I had seen inside the galleries, going from window to window, taking notes, pencil in hand, walked past us.


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