Arts of Asia


"Utsusemi," Tale of Genji and "Suma," Tale of Genji, ca. 1650–70
School of Iwasa Matabei (Japan, 1578–1650)
Color and gold on paper mounted on wood panels
63 x 143 3/4 inches and 63 x 145 inches
Gift of Class of 1908 1980-16-1/2

Some consider the eleventh-century Heian-period Tale of Genji by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 970–ca. 1020) to be the world's first novel. The work certainly holds pride of place as the greatest masterpiece of classical Japanese prose literature. Its countless subplots have been reworked as themes in Nō and kabuki theatre, puppet plays, and fiction, and favorite passages have been visualized in paintings and prints.

In the image of the "Utsusemi" chapter, Prince Genji is in frustrated pursuit of a woman who denies herself to him. He is already married, but monogamous fidelity was alien to polygamous courtier culture of the time. Genji has spent the night at the lady's mansion, hoping in vain that her younger brother might help him press his suit, but she has refused to see him. In the image depicting the "Suma" chapter, Genji rides off into exile in a seaside village because of his political and amorous indiscretions.

The medium of screen painting originated in China but was adapted by the Japanese elite to suit their own purposes. Not only were screens objects of beauty, displaying the taste and culture of their owners, but they served as room dividers in spacious mansions where rooms flowed into each other without fixed walls.

Yamato-e (native "Japanese," as distinct from "Chinese," pictures), a style practiced by Iwasa Matabei and his school in the early seventeenth century, illustrated subjects from Chinese and Japanese legend and classical literature in a highly decorative manner. Matabei is a controversial figure in the history of Japanese art. Some scholars claim him for the classical tradition while others appropriate him as one of the new, energetic "town painters" of the early modern period; his body of work is expansive enough to justify both views. Matabei also painted contemporary genre scenes; his work is thought to have been highly influential on the seventeenth-century development of ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world" that were popular in urban entertainment districts.

Text by Ronald Toby, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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