Monogatari-e: Story Paintings in Japan

Screen depicting a scene from the Tale of Genji by Iwasa Katsutomo, 17th century

IT HAS BEEN 24 years since the Idemitsu Museum has presented an exhibition on a similar theme, monogatari-e, and for this current show about 30 paintings in various formats have been chosen. 2014 was the commemorative 400th year of the artist Hon’ami Koetsu receiving Takagamine in north Kyoto and turning it into a artists’ Utopia, and several Rinpa-related exhibitions were organised in Japan throughout the year.

The master artist who worked most closely with Koetsu was Tawaraya Sotatsu, and his more representative and important work, Illustrated Stories of the Poet Saigyo, is in the Idemitsu’s collection and on show in this exhibition with all three of the scrolls on display for the first time to the public.

Monogatari-e (story painting) is a collective term used to describe a group of paintings which illustrate and highlight major scenes from Buddhist tales and the classical tales in Japanese literature. Representative narrative stories of the Heian period, for example, the Tale of Genji and Tales of Ise, were translated into paintings soon after their creation and became noted works of art in their own right in Japanese art history.

The forms (or scenes) reproduced as monogatari-e are always based on the words (or events) described in the original text of the stories. This exhibition examines the close relationship between the ‘form’ and the ‘words’, and also focuses on the incidental dramatic transformation of the tales represented in the world of the illustrations.

However, the relationship between words and form is not always unilateral and does not necessarily always go in the same direction, they often echo each other, and are sometimes reversed, with the illustrations giving new life to the written story. This is because each of these forms (scenes) is the expression of the story as the artist understood it, whose own imagination then interprets the drama and transmits it to a wider audience in the form of a painting. Monogatari-e can therefore provide a definitive outline to a portrayal of an episode in a tale, which could then be rendered in countless ways by countless artists using the story as their base, this can often create an exciting scene beyond the imagination of the reader when just reading the story.

This exhibition proposes new ways of appreciating monogatari-e. Not to view them according to the story, but to look at them when they are divided into six different categories, or themes, and presented in the exhibition as chapters to reflect the structure of the tale as presented in a book.

Each of these themes is the mirror of various representative human emotions. Thus the forms/scenes and the words are so closely entangled that, at times, they add great drama to the tale.

The Imagination of Monogatari-e

Chapter One visits the Imagination of Monogatari-e, the Unreliability of Words. This section prompts the question, What kind of scene is selected and portrayed in the story? When one questions the scene and the events illustrated in the paintings, the viewer is probably ‘reading’ the narrated story from the images in the picture. While doing so, he is also using all his senses to search from his past memories of reading the original text on which the depiction is based.

However, that is not always easy. In this chapter, the exhibition not only looks at the unreliability of the monogatari-e, but also at the same time, would like to suggest that this unreliability allows the viewer at that point to use his imagination to go further than merely reading the text, as it allows the imagination to travel in any direction, because of the uncertainty of memories and individual nterpretations of the text.

Love Affairs and Loving Feelings

Chapter Two is all about Love Affairs and Loving Feelings, focusing on the Genji-e, the Tale of Genji. This tale is the undoubted champion of all the narrative stories of Heian court literature – the life of a noble Prince Hikaru Genji, all told on larger-than-life scale and in such a grand manner. The central theme of the story relates to various episodes of the love affairs of court nobles, including those of Prince Genji himself. In this chapter, the exhibition looks at the brilliantly portrayed love stories in Genji-e and some of the paintings that illustrate this famous story.

By looking closely at the text, it is clear that it includes almost all of the major themes that are covered in the great mediaeval tales, which are also dealt with in the later chapters of this exhibition, which makes Genji-e the most comprehensive of all of the monogatari-e. No other work from this period can match Tale of Genji in popularity and longevity, or as a subject for the visual arts. It is one of the world’s most enduring as well as one of the earliest prose narratives in romantic literature.

The tale is distinguished by the complexity of the plot, the depth of emotions the characters display, as well as its keen observation of nature, human psychology and social behaviour, all portrayed in a highly sophisticated prose style. The tale represents both the pinnacle of Japanese literary achievement from the mediaeval period and is still a primary focus for many artists in literary illustration to this day.

The Broken Heart and Retirement

Chapter Three is concerned with the Broken Heart and Retirement, and Going Away. Being away from your everyday life and visiting place where you do not normally go, or naturally belong, through travel is an important theme of these tales.This chapter explores the reasons and motivations behind travel and the circumstances of it and how it is portrayed in the illustrations of the tales.

Is it because the characters are looking for the loved one? Or have they been deserted by their lover? Or are they just despairing of the current life? For illustration in this section of the exhibition, travel is seen through the portrayal by Tawaraya Sotasu in his Illustrated Stories of Saigyo, dated Kan’ei 7 (1630), which is an Important Cultural Property.

The Story of Saigyo is that of a poet-priest – Saigyo dating from the Heian period. Saigyo was a leading warrior by the name of Sato Yoshikiyo, serving the Imperial court, but he abandoned his position, lamenting the chaos and misfortunes of his fellow warriors and eventually became a wondering monk.

The illustrated scrolls by Tawaraya Sotatsu, is a study of the classical narrative scroll and copies the style of scrolls from the earlier Muromachi period. This particular scroll in the exhibition portrays Saigyo presenting the farewell message to his master, retired-Emperor Toba, a parting poem of the last view of the beautiful palace. The scene also is related to the preceding Ise-e, because the painting in the palace in question is taken from the Tales of Ise, another famous story, in which Ariwara Narihira wanders the country for love. The portrayal of Saigyo and his farewell suggests a sense of travel and aimless wandering, and in so doing, hints at Saigyo’s own future travels in the tale.

Promotion and Fame in Monogatari-e

Chapter Four brings us to Promotion and Fame, and a focus on Success and Failure. Only after overcoming difficulties in these tales can come success and consequent fame. The success of the hero in the story gives a sense of courage to the reader and heightens the emotions.

In this chapter, success and failure is seen through what can only politely be called ‘the mastery of breaking wind’, as seen in the low humour of the Illustrated Story of an Old Man, Fukutomi from the 15th century. It is a cautionary tale of overnight millionaires and abject poverty.

The success story is taken from the Tale of Uji Shui, a group of 197 tales, originally written around the beginning of the 13th century by unknown authors, and is represented by the painting of an archer by Sumiyoshi Jokei, Illustrated Story from the Tale of Uji Shui, 17th century, which is an Important Art Object.

Roughened Heart, Stories of Battles and Revenge

Chapter Five is all about a Roughened Heart, Stories of Battles and Revenge. The story of fierce warriors, samurai, fighting each other for power, land and financial gain, is often told as a mixture of historical fact and the imagination.

This chapter is illustrated by screens depicting Episodes of Ichi-no-Tani, Yashima and Dan-no-Ura, battle scenes of two rival clans, Genji and Heike, from the 17th century, and Scenes from the Tale of Soga, also from the 17th century, the latter being the revenge story of the Soga brothers. Both these screens express the powerful, chaotic and consufing experiences of large crowds of people engaged in battle.

Power of Prayer, In Search of Holy Deities

Finally, Chapter Six presents Power of Prayer, In Search of Holy Deities. This section asks the question, What is expected after a fierce battle? In these ancient tales, there often appear supernatural beings, or the manifestation of other-worldly powers that create yet another attraction in the story.

This chapter examines the miraculous efficacy of the gods, Buddha, and other deities, using as an example the screen Scene from the Origin of Tenjin Shrine, dated to the 15th century, an Important Art Object.

Monogatari-e: Illustrated Narrative Paintings 10 January to 15 February, at the Idemitsu Museum of Art, 9th Floor, Teigeki Bldg, 3-1-1, Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo,