Each of the small-scale screens ('ko-byôbu') is decorated with scenes from the classic novel "Tale of Genji", written by the court lady Murasaki Shikibu in around 1008. Each of the small-size six-fold screens features five scenes that are individually framed by bands of gold clouds. An embossed pattern of two concentric lozenges with a dot on each corner are spread evenly over the golden surface of the clouds. Three parallel rows of embossed dots form the scalloped contours of the clouds and separate them from the areas used to define the ground. The emphasis has been laid on the figures which are rendered with a great amount of individuality, whereas landscape elements, textile patterns and architectural settings play an obviously minor role, being rendered with less imagination and variety. Quite unusual is the fact that no visual seasonal hints are given at all, even the iconic autumn leaves and cherry blossoms are duly omitted in the scenes illustrating Chapters 7 ('Momijinoga') and 24 ('Kōchō'). Only through the lecture of the depicted scenes can it be understood that the right screen represents Autumn and Winter while the left screen illustrates events that took place in Spring and Summer.
The right screen begins with a scene from Chapter One, 'Kiritsubo'. Here a wet nurse is presenting the newly born protagonist of the novel, Genji , to his father, the Emperor, who is sitting on a raised tatami mat and is shown in full frontal view. Sitting between two curtains to his right is Lady Kiritsubo, the Emperor’s favourite consort and Genji’s mother. As Lady Kiritsubo died soon after Genji’s birth, this scene captures one of the rare moments of familial bliss. This happy scene is witnessed by five other ladies and two page boys who are sitting on the veranda around the room. Presenting the new-born Genji to his father seems to have established itself as a motif only in the Edo period, as late medieval 'Genji-e' tend to illustrate the visit of the Korean physiognomist who predicted Genji’s fortune or the Prince’s coming-of-age ceremony.
Occupying the lower half of the first two panels is the scene illustrating Chapter 21, 'Otome'. The classic iconography for this chapter depicts the maid sent by the lady Akikonomu walking over a footbridge into Murasaki’s quarters in the Rokujō mansion, carrying in her hand a lacquer tray with a poem amid the red leaves and chrysanthemums from Akikonomu’s autumn garden. While the basic elements – the maid crossing the footbridge and Murasaki and her companion waiting for her arrival in their quarter – are easily recognizable here, the figure of the courtier sitting in the corner of the veranda in front of Murasaki as well as the white flowers on the maid’s tray are unusual. However, as we shall see below, the artist of these screens did not always strictly follow the canonical iconography, but sometimes offered a very individual interpretation of the scenes.
The poignant scene in Chapter 19, 'Usugumo', when Genji came to take his daughter from the Akashi Lady in Katsura in order for the girl to be raised in an environment more adequate to her status, spans the upper register of the third and fourth panel. A deviation from the classical iconography can again be noticed here, in that the artist chose to show Genji himself carrying the little princess in his arms on the way to the carriage that is waiting for them outside. The little girl holds a sleeve over her face weeping. She clings with her eyes to her mother who is sitting on the floor looking distressed because of the imminent separation. The comic detail of two servants struggling with an ox in front of the house never appears in classical 'Genji-e' but seems to be a specialty of the Matabei School, as it can also be seen in the screens in the Kyoto National Museum. It was probably included to counterbalance the immense sadness of the scene.
The reading of the next scene on the upper register of the fifth and sixth panel is somewhat ambiguous. Usually the image of a girl on the veranda looking out on the garden while two maids look searchingly around the garden with empty cages in their hands hints at the scene in Chapter 5, 'Wakamurasaki', in which the young Murasaki stepped out on the veranda to look for her pet sparrow and was discovered by Genji. However, in this case, this vignette seems to illustrate rather two different scenes of Chapter 28, 'Nowaki'. The lady on the veranda could be Murasaki, who stepped out to see what the typhoon has done to the flowers in her garden. The bending willow branches and Murasaki’s blown back sleeve point at the power of the wind. The little girls, however, are Akikonomu’s maids, who have been sent out to lay insect cages in the damp garden.
The last scene on this screen is the largest, as it stretches over the lower half of four panels. In Chapter 7, 'Momijinoga', a festival was organised to celebrate the autumn leaves and Genji and his long time friend and rival Tō no Chūjo performed the Dance of the Blue Waves in front of the emperor. Although the autumn leaves are absent, the whole setting leaves no doubt about the identification of the scene.
The left screen starts with an unusual image stretching over three panels in the upper right corner. Two courtiers are peeping over the fence into a room adjacent to a garden with a waterfall. Two little girls, one sitting on the veranda with her back turned to the voyeurs and the other sitting in the room facing the garden are weeping desperately. Between them, on the veranda is a small three-legged lacquered table that seems to be used as the base of a bird cage, which, however, is missing in this scene. In the back of the room, an elderly lady is sitting in front of the alcove, leaning heavily on an armrest. An adult maid and another girl are standing in the other end of the room, looking forlornly outside. A strong diagonal roof separates this scene sharply from the one on the left. Here the beholder looks over the shoulder of a high ranking Buddhist priest who is praying in front of a richly decorated altar.
Combined in the most extraordinary way all the components of this image hint at Chapter 5, 'Murasaki'. In this chapter, the ailing Genji retreated to the northern hills to seek relief from his illness. One evening, he spied a young girl who resembled very much his secret love, the Lady Fujitsubo. While in the northern hills, Genji also visited the bishop who prayed for his recovery. Again, in this scene, the artist did not only leave out some very important details such as the empty birdcage or the cherry blossoms, he also combined various events within one single image.
The interpretation of the next scene in the lower register of the first and second panel is unproblematic. It depicts the dance of the girls dressed as butterflies that have been sent by 'Wakamurasaki' as reply to Akikonomu’s poem praising the beauty of the autumn season. Although this scene took place amid a series of festive performances to celebrate spring at Genji’s Rokujō mansion, the natural settings have been kept minimal without any seasonal clues.
The vignette in the central two panels illustrates the festive scene in Chapter 35, 'Wakana Ge', when Genji assembled all the women in his household at the Rokujō mansion and together they performed a concert. Murasaki played the wagon, the Third Princess the koto and the Akashi Lady, sitting in the foreground, played the biwa. The Akashi Princess, heavy with child at that time, sat next to Genji leaning on an armrest. Outside on the veranda, a court noble, probably Yūgiri, and two young boys, Yūgiri’s eldest son and Tamakazura’s son accompanied the ladies on the koto and the flute.
The last image on the lower left of the screen shows another peeping ('kaimami') scene. It illustrates the famous scene in Chapter 25, 'Hotaru', in which Genji released fireflies from a bag toward Tamakazura in order to illuminate her face for the peeping Prince Hotaru. Again, the artist has omitted this important detail, but Genji’s gesture and the figure of Hotaru peeping leave no doubts about the interpretation of the scene.
The last scene on the left screen which spans the upper register of the fourth, fifth and sixth panels is on the other hand more difficult to decode. Genji is seen in full frontal view, deeply engaged in conversation with a high ranking court lady. Next to her is a younger lady who must also be of importance, as she is sitting on a raised mat encircled by curtains. An extremely large number of ladies-in-waiting and two page boys are sitting around the main personages on the veranda. The group of ladies in the corridor to Genji’s left seem especially upset, discussing some serious matters. The general atmosphere is filled with tension. Due to the lack of seasonal markers or other telltale clues, this scene cannot be identified with certainty. If the trees in the garden are orange trees ('tachibana'), the scene can be interpreted as illustrating Chapter 11, 'Hanachirusato', when Genji paid a visit to the Lady Reikeiden, one of his late father’s consorts, and met with Reikeiden’s younger sister, Hanachirusato, with whom he had had a brief affair. The cuckoo and the quarter moon, typical for this scene, are absent here though. Considering the seriousness of the scene, the number of ladies-in-waiting and the high position of the lady in conversation with Genji, it is also plausible that this scene represents Chapter 14, 'Miotsukushi', when Genji, on his way back to the capital after his pilgrimage to the Sumiyoshi Shrine, dropped in to visit the Lady Rokujō at her deathbed and on that occasion, caught a glimpse of Lady Rokujō’s daughter, who later became Lady Akikonomu. In this case, the emotional agitation of the ladies-in-waiting is comprehensible. Although the novel did not mention the presence of page boys in this scene, it was not uncommon in the Edo period to include them as Genji’s companions. It is also possible that this vignette illustrates one episode of Chapter 40, 'Minori', in which Genji summons a seer to perform a ritual dance for the healing of Murasaki. In any case, the iconography of this scene is extremely rare.
The two screens do not bear any signature or seal, yet, the depiction of the figures with the large, somewhat plump faces and sometimes caricature-like expressions point unmistakably to the style of Matabei. Apparently, Matabei himself did not paint any 'Genji-e' in the screen format, but there are a few examples of Genji screens by artists of his studio extant today. A comparison of these screens shows that there existed a common hand book with Genji motifs for the artists of this tradition. For example, the scenes 'Momijinoga' and 'Kōchō' on the Sydney pair are very similar to those on the pair of 'ko-byōbu' in the collection of the Ishikawa Prefectural Art Museum (Ishikawa Kenritsu Bijutsukan) . Further, the scenes 'Usugumo' and 'Momijinoga' of the Sydney pair are almost identical with those on the pair in the collection of the Kyoto National Museum , while the scene 'Otome' resembles the one on a pair of six-fold screens in a private collection in Japan . The maneristic handling of the rocks and the bold, accentuated outlines of the trees, not seen on other Genji screens by artists of the Matabei tradition, are very close to the style of the handscroll “Shutendōji emaki” in a private collection as well as of the pair of six-fold screens “24 Filial Piety” in the collection of the Kōmyōji, Fukui Prefecture, so that it can be assumed that they are from the same hand. All three works were handed down through old families resident in the Fukui area and are dated to the second half of the seventeenth century.
Excerpt from Khanh Trinh, ‘Iwasa Matabei ha – Genji monogatari zu byobu’, (trans.) 'KOKKA', no. 1358, Dec 2008, pp 45–7 (translated into Japanese)
Place where the work was made
mid 17th century
pair of six-panel screens (byobu); ink and colour on paper
a - right screen, 91.5 x 271.2 cm
b - left screen, 91.5 x 271.2 cm
Purchased with the assistance of the Diana Dorothea Bennett Fund 2007
Not on display
Where the work was made
Shown in 3 exhibitions
Referenced in 5 publications
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual Report 2007-08, Sydney, 2008, 28 (colour illus.).
Khanh Trinh, Genji - the world of the Shining Prince, 'Imagining the 'Shining Prince' ', pgs. 8-29., Sydney, 2008, 4 (colour illus.), 20-21 (colour illus.), 22-23 (colour illus.), 24-25 (colour illus.). fig.8. The colour illus. on pages 4, 22-23, 24-25 are details of this work. The upper scene on pg.4 is 'Presentation of newborn Genji to his father (Ch.1); the lower scene is 'Messenger bringing poems to Murasaki' (Ch.21)
Khanh Trinh, Look, 'The Tale of Genji', pgs. 18-21., Sydney, Sep 2008, 18-19 (colour illus.), 20-21 (colour illus.).
"Iwasa-ha no yukue" (Locating the Iwasa-School), Japan, 1998. cat.no 43
KOKKO, Khanh Trinh, ‘Iwasa Matabei ha – Genji monogatari zu byobu’, pp 45, Japan, Dec 2008. English article translated into Japanese