Date of Submission
Studio Arts; Asian Studies
Project Advisor 1
Project Advisor 2
The Seasons of Genji
The Tale of Genji was written for Empress Fujiwara no Shoshi by Murasaki Shikibu, a fellow court noblewoman, during the Heian Period of Japan (794 AD to 1185 AD). One could dismiss The Tale of Genji as a romantic tale of a prince and his lovers, a story full of beauty, poetry, and women named after flowers. While Genji is a shining prince with poetic affairs, the focus of the tale never lingers too long on the sweetness of love. Rather, the tale explores the cycles that grip Genji’s life and the control they have over his relationships. The seasons are one of the many cycles which add depth to Genji’s story. In Japanese waka poetry, the seasons are entangled with poetic weight, and Shikibu references the anthologies that circulated among her contemporaries to shape important scenes in Genji’s life. In my paintings I seek to accentuate the presence of seasons in the tale, using painting to highlight their importance. The seasons remain a cornerstone in Japanese culture, considering their constant and shifting impact on the natural environment, they dictate everything from fashion to the celebration of festivals, even rotating snacks in convenience stores. The Tale of Genji establishes the importance of seasons early on in Japanese cultural history, which I would like to explore in my paintings.
Although my project is predicated on a showcase of the seasons, my work relies heavily on the human figure and portraiture as subjects for my oil paintings. By appropriating scenes and characters from the tale, interlaced with seasonal imagery (such as plants, flowers, and atmospheric conditions) I hope to use the figures in my work to impart the language of the seasons.
Outside of my own experiences, my works are referenced from a series of collages composed from photographs and paintings. One major type of influence in my work is Pre-Raphaelite painters, such as George Henry Grenville Manton (1855 - 1932), as the works from this movement are generally romantic images composed around the female figure in nature. The Tale of Genji compliments Pre-Raphaelite ideals, as both share an interest in women, beauty, nature, romance and death. The Tale of Genji takes place in the distant, aristocratic court of Heian Japan, the details of which elude modern historians. In an effort to observe the style of the period, I looked to the vast canon of Genji art produced in Japan. Works by masters such as Tosa Mitsunobu and the Tosa School inspired the clothing and settings in my work.
For my paintings I selected scenes which both exemplify the emotions of the seasons and have a lasting impact on Genji's life. As such, my paintings include scenes of birth, death, and discovery. I also prioritized the many women of Genji’s life, as Genji himself only appears in one painting. The tale is essentially Genji’s fictional biography, his decisions drive the course of the plot. However, Genji is overshadowed by the relationships he builds, and thus the women of the tale shape his existence. Each woman is named by Genji for a flower she reminds him of, as many of these relationships are defined by the season Genji finds them in.
Originally, I was attracted to The Tale of Genji because it sits at the intersection between so many facets of Japanese culture. As a pillar of Japanese literature and an internationally recognized classic, I began reading the tale with my own preconceptions of what kind of story it would be. Having taken nearly four months to complete the tale, it has done more than defy my expectations of it being romance. Having painted the characters, spent time giving them faces, their sense of loss and joy has become more palpable, and closer than ever.
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Mudry, Elizabeth, "The Seasons of Genji" (2021). Senior Projects Spring 2021. 279.
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