Courtly Splendor: Twelve Centuries of Treasures from Japan

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, organized  by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan, to celebrate the enthronement of Emperor Akihito and in conjunction with the centennial of the MFA’s Department of Asiatic Art.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March 1989)

Courtly Splendor begins with two 13th century portraits. One shows a 10th century poet, Fujiwara no Takamitsu. The pensive poet Takamitsu is wrapped in a voluminous black kimono. He carries a scroll of his poems, but he also wears a sword and a blue sash, because he was a captain in the imperial bodyguard. The other shows the 9th century calligrapher Ono no Michikaze, who was one of the founders of the elegant, flowing Japanese manner of writing known as Wayo. He is kneeling on a tatami mat and dipping his brush into an elaborate lacquer writing box

These portraits are an auspicious beginning for the MFA’s sumptuous show of 60 exceptional works of art from Japan. Many of the treasures here intertwine images with passages of writing — poetry, narrative, or calligraphy.

Yubi — graceful, elegant, delicate — is the word that defines the culture that emerged and flourished during Japan’s Heian Period (794 – 1185), when the Japanese nobility maintained residences in the imperial court of the Heian capital, now Kyoto. Life at court revolved around the emperor and the imperial family, and the nobility participated in elaborate rituals and practiced refinements of courtly gestures. Poetry was an essential courtly skill; poems were written to thank, flatter, praise, implore, seduce, advance a career, or commemorate an event.

The aristocracy amused themselves with an endless round of entertainments and intrigues, and many of the narrative handscrolls here relate their love affairs. (Handscrolls are paintings on silk or fine paper, framed with decorative borders of patterned flowers or gold. They are shown here unrolled, but they were created and enjoyed as precious, intimate objects, held in the hands and looked at slowly, one small section at a time.)

A 12th century poetry anthology, Hon’ami-gire, shows four love poems, exquisitely calligraphed on delicate white paper patterned with mica. To Western eyes, the writing reads as abstract lyrical lines dancing across the page, and it’s so elegant and sensual that you can easily enjoy it as a purely visual object. But a translation of the texts reveals how beautifully language and image work together in this delicate work of art.

Kino Tomonori‘s poem reveals,

“True, I say nothing
but the longing in my heart
reaches out to you,
secret as the constant flow
of an underground river.”

The silvery glow of the moon and the flow of the underground river are reflected in the sinuous letters that swoon down a page strewn with shimmering silver roses.

The most famous of all courtiers was Prince Genji, the perfectly polished hero of Lady Murasaki Shikibu‘s 10th century romance The Tale of Genji. His many adventures and love affairs inspired some glorious works of art. Tosa Mitsuyoshi’s illustrations for a 17th century Edo period Tale of Genji are dazzling little picture puzzles that play with perspective, illusion, and point of view.

In one scene, Genji watches two women playing Go. The women bend over the perfect little board, with its tiny black and white stones, concentrating on the game. Their elaborate, many-layered kimonos are richly ornamented with silvery flowers and lined with borders of vibrant red; their jet black hair swirls down their backs in long slow curves like Art Nouveau.

A cluster of flowers arches over one of the women; painted flowers on a tiny golden screen bend over the other. Genji stands unseen behind a painting of a maple tree; outside the room is a real tree.Each exquisite page is painted in brilliant opaque colors made from mineral pigments like azurite and malachite, and divided by clouds of pure gold leaf.

In the last room, three 13th century handscrolls — The Death of Shinzei, Flight of the Imperial Family to Taira Kiyomori’s Mansion at Rokuhara, and the MFA’s own The Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace — present an almost cinematic chronicle of the bloody wars between the Tira and Minamoto clans. (They look very much like scenes from great Japanese movies like Kurosawa‘s  Ran.) The reunion of these three handscrolls, which have not been seen together for centuries, is a grande finale for this splendid, many-splendored show.

The scrolls are brilliantly composed as a series of scenes that catapult the viewer forward into the turmoil and chaos and hellishness of war, punctuated by quieter scenes that reveal the characters’ inner dramas. In The Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace, fierce warriors slash with long, curved swords and horses charge into the fray, while the palace burns in big red swirls of flame, and terrified women jump into a well, smothering themselves in grey clouds of smoke with their billowing kimonos.

There are some spectacular religious works of art here, too. An 8th century Chinese Tang dynasty statue of the guardian of the North, called Tobatsu Bishamon-ten, used to stand at the gate of Rashomon. This national treasure is made of carved wood. It was once covered with gold leaf; the gold is mostly gone now, but the statue still has an incredibly powerful presence — fierce, yet serene.

The Five Great Kings of Light are awe-inspiring apparitions, surrounded by swirling red flames. A Welcoming Descent of Amida is silky and sensual; the Buddha descends in a soft cloud, surrounded by an entourage of silvery dragons and heavenly maidens. A Kasuga Deer Mandala shows a deer with a tree growing out of his back, standing in a cloud above a mountainous landscape, like a vision in a dream.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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