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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