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Metropolitan Museum starts major exhibition on 'Tale of Genji'

The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a major exhibition on March 5, 2019 that focuses on artwork inspired by the 11th-century Japanese classic "The Tale of Genji." (Kyodo)

    NEW YORK (Kyodo) -- The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a major exhibition on Tuesday that focuses on artwork inspired by the 11th-century Japanese classic "The Tale of Genji."

    The epic tale, written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting in the early 11th-century imperial court, depicts the romantic life of a son of an emperor and is generally considered the world's first novel.

    "The galleries will educate you about certain events, scenes and characters, including the complicated protagonist -- the Shining Prince Genji himself -- and the numerous female characters who more often than not upstaged him," said Melissa McCormick, a Japanese art professor at Harvard University and guest curator for the exhibit.

    Aside from depictions of scenes from the story, "The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated" includes 120 pieces of art that date back at least a thousand years and demonstrate the book's historical impact on Japanese culture.

    One of the two Japanese national treasures on display is a 12th-century copy of the Lotus Sutra showing the tale's influence on Buddhism. As the story grew in popularity, members of the elite class infused its poems and picture motifs into scripture.

    "The tale was considered by many to be a Buddhist text," McCormick told Kyodo News. "You could read it and get insights of Buddhist principles."

    "The galleries are organized thematically, each room designed to show each possible permutation of vibrant works of art created as a result of engagement with this book throughout history."

    The exhibit also features 17th-century demon masks used in Genji-inspired Noh plays, an Edo-period palanquin last used to carry princess Atsu-hime into Edo Castle in 1856, and Edo-period parlor games. It follows through to the tale's representations in modern pop culture and visual art, such as Yamato Waki's popular manga adaptation "Asaki Yumemishi."

    John Carpenter, a curator of Japanese art for the museum, said the late scholar Donald Keene visited the Met last year and was "completely astounded" by the Tale of Genji screens and cultural property albums on loan from Japan.

    Carpenter recalled that Keene, a world-renowned scholar and translator of Japanese literature, mentioned coming across Arthur Waley's translation of Genji in a New York bookstore at age 18 and finding in it the inspiration that fueled his career.

    "I think Professor Keene is looking down on us and enjoying the exhibition that we talked about a year ago," Carpenter said of the luminary who passed away in February at age 96.

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