Charles Loring Elliott, Portrait of Matthew Vassar, 1861

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Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints will be at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center September 20-December 15, 2013, focused on prints inspired by Japan’s seminal tale

While The Tale of Genji dates from the eleventh century it continues to greatly influence Japanese arts and literature, inspiring everything from paintings, prints, short stories, plays, and operas, to movies, symphonies, manga, video games, and anime. Court lady Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 973-1014/25) wrote about the life and loves of Prince Genji for an audience of aristocratic women, and her story has not only grown to be considered perhaps the greatest work of classical Japanese literature, but it is also often called the world’s first modern novel. Imagery associated with the tale was first featured in paintings, especially scroll paintings in the 12th century, and then followed in Japanese prints beginning in the seventeenth century.

Genji’s World in Japanese Woodblock Prints is the first exhibition outside Japan focused on Genji prints, and it will be presented by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center from September 20 to December 15, 2013. Most of the 57 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints and books on view come from the extensive collection of Paulette and Jack Lantz, considered the foremost of works in this genre. The exhibition was organized by the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College (Claremont, CA), curated by Scripps College professor Bruce Coats, and also features several prints from the Williamson Gallery’s collection. The complete display includes single sheets, diptychs, and triptychs, as well as book illustrations.

[See the checklist of objects in the exhibition.] 

Columbia University professor of Japanese literature and culture Haruo Shirane will provide the opening lecture on Friday, September 20 at 5:30pm, and a reception at the Art Center will immediately follow at 6:30pm. Art Center curator Patricia Phagan will conduct a gallery talk on the exhibition on Thursday, October 10 at 4:00pm.  Additionally, a family day of activities inspired by the exhibition will be held in the museum on Saturday, September 28, from 1:30-4:00pm. 

The presentation of Genji's World in Japanese Woodblock Prints at Vassar benefits from the support of the Evelyn Metzger Exhibition Fund.

Parodies and retellings of the classic Genji story were particularly popular in the nineteenth century for woodblock print and illustrated book artists. The famous Utagawa School artists Kunisada (1786-1865), Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), Hiroshige (1797-1858), and Yoshiiku (1833-1904) produced more than forty sets of prints depicting either the romantic exploits of Prince Genji or of the handsome Mutsuuji, hero of the satire A Rustic Genji by a Fraudulent Murasaki written by the poet Ryutei Tanehiko (1783-1842).

In the nineteenth century the majority of Genji prints portrayed not the classic tale but the parody A Rustic Genji, which was published in installments and was light and entertaining like the popular fiction of the period. Kunisada, working from Tanehiko’s sketches, illustrated the pages of the numerous installments of the Rustic Genji, and his designs in these booklets established the format for his and others’ brilliantly colored, large-format sheet prints inspired by the great popularity of this bestseller. This abundance of new Genji prints in effect created a new genre of woodblock print.

Seeing both kinds of Genji prints provides extraordinary insight into the nineteenth century efforts to revive Japanese classical culture and yet infuse those traditional images with a lively and sometimes satirical commentary on contemporary society. In fact, the majority of works in this exhibition feature characters from the re-told satire A Rustic Genji. In the latter, images of beautiful, idealized women and opulent dress predominate and communicate a message of harmony and sensual pleasure. A few of these even make reference to the West, and to the impending changes that would soon overtake Japanese society and culture at the end of the nineteenth century. The exhibition also includes prints with erotic aspects by artists who were often pushing the limits of government censorship on woodblock prints.

New views of Genji, not directly depicting scenes in the books, are also in the exhibition and feature seasonal themes, floral references, famous places, and annual festivals. Not only were these new views of A Rustic Genji linked to several centuries of poetic traditions about flowers and the changing seasons, but they also allowed the artists to feature the latest fashions in garments for both men and women. Rustic Genji prints thus became popular with stylish individuals who wanted to see the newest kimono designs and fabric patterns. Depictions of both Genji figures traveling to famous places in Japan -- especially to well-known sites around Edo (modern-day Tokyo) -- were also popular, and often produced in sets as a marketing strategy. Annual festivals were frequently featured in Kunisada’s prints as part of a revival of religious celebrations.

In the last few years, international conferences and museum exhibitions in Europe, Japan, and the United States have been celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the writing of the Tale of Genji. But little attention has been given to the numerous nineteenth century woodblock print versions of Genji and A Rustic Genji, which are often witty and charming parodies or interpretations of the original novel. Some of these prints were limited edition deluxe productions designed for wealthy clients, but many were published widely and more cheaply for a mass audience of fiction readers and print collectors. Even Genji game boards were created for adults and children to play. These stories also proved extremely popular for kabuki theater performances during the nineteenth century in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto, starring some of the most famous actors of the day. Several print sets by Kunisada and his followers were both illustrations of the original texts and advertisements for well-known actors. At a time when government censorship greatly restricted artistic expression, some of the illustrations for these stories were also used for subtle political and social protests, to be deciphered by sophisticated viewers.

The exhibition layout will begin with a section that examines the transformation of A Tale of Genji imagery to Rustic Genji prints. It will be followed by thematic sections, including the seasons, theater, famous places, sex, game boards, and modern Japan. .

Curator Bruce A. Coats is a Professor of Art History and Humanities at Scripps College, and he contributed to the extensive full-color scholarly publication on Genji prints that accompanies the exhibition (and can be purchased at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center). Edited by Andreas Marks with additional writing by fellow scholars Michael Emmerich, Susanne Formanek, Sepp Linhart, and Rhiannon Paget, this volume is the first in any language devoted solely to this Genji print phenomenon (Brill/Hotei, 2012); like the exhibition, it will broaden awareness of how important these Genji narratives and parodies were to nearly all levels of Japanese culture in the nineteenth century.


Opening Lecture and Reception

Friday, September 20


Haruo Shirane, Columbia University
"Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production"
Taylor Hall, room 203

Shirane is the Shincho Professor of Japanese Literature and Culture at Columbia University, and he will speak on the widespread influence of The Tale of Genji in Japanese society. Shirane has authored and edited numerous books on Japanese literature, including the volume Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production, published by Columbia University Press in 2008. His latest book is Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts (Columbia University Press, 2012). Shirane received his B.A. in English literature and Oriental Studies from Columbia University in 1974, his M.A. in Japanese literature from the University of Michigan in 1977, and his PhD. in Japanese literature from Columbia University in 1983.


The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

Family Day

Saturday, September 28
1:30 - 4:00 pm
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

Families are invited to enjoy a fun afternoon of activities inspired by Genji's World in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Participants can explore the galleries and join in special art-making activities, storytelling, and kid-friendly interactive tours for children ages 4-10. Drop in, no registration required.

Gallery Talk

Thursday, October 10
4:00 pm
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

Art Center curator Patricia Phagan will lead an informal discussion of the exhibition. Phagan is the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings, and she will share her unique curatorial perspective on the show as a whole and will also explore selected works in detail. 


The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 18,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares.  Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.

Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible.  The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm.  Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion.  For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit

Directions to the Vassar campus, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie (NY), are available at

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, August 9, 2013


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