Edo Portrayals of Courtly Love


Courtly Love: The Tales of Ise Illustrated at the Idemitsu Museum of Art

After visiting the Mitsuo Aida Museum (previous post), I went a few blocks up the street on to the Idemitsu Museum of Art, known for its East Asian art collection. Unfortunately, none of the permanent collection was on display. Instead, the main exhibit consisted of art portraying the Tale of Ise, a series of stories that predate the more well-known Tale of Genji.

From what I gather Ise was like a Don Juan, a paramour who writes love letters to the ladies of the court, sets out on adventures, leaving a trail of heartbreak, but he never finds lasting love. The bulk of the exhibit consists of hanging scrolls that have a lot of gold as a background. Though the tale is from the Heian Period (794-1195CE) most of the art was from the much later Edo Period (1603-1868CE). I can’t say I was overly impressed with the art. Like most Edo period court art, they were overly stylized, and heavily formal portrayals lacking nuance, depth or detail. Some of the “masterpieces” especially by Sotetsu, were muddy and the strokes appeared lazy.

I did find one special scroll by Iwasa Matabe (1578-1650) called “Azusa-yumi” that stood out from the rest. It has a striking background of geometric lines that merely suggest the architectural structure of a gate and manor that is transparent to the two melancholy lovers portrayed, as if the world melted away between them. It’s subtle and suggests the delicate dance of courtly love. I also enjoyed Hanabusa Itcho’s “Death of Narihira”, a whimsical portrait of Ise that parodies a traditional painting of the Buddha surrounded by his followers, animals and bodhisattvas.

Shards and Screams

Other exhibits at the museum included a pottery sherd exhibit that had a nice broad representation of pottery in Japan in context with East Asian ceramics.

Also in a small gallery were some self-portraits of Edvard Munch that I’d never seen before. I’m not a fan of Munch and his tortured art, but I did find the self-portraits to be revealing. His eyes are buried in a blur of misery and his face was twisted in his personal anguish.

One of the highlights of the museum is the seating area with a view of the moat and forest of the Imperial Palace. There’s a free tea dispenser and you can sit among the mellow chatter of old people talking about the exhibit.

Overall, it was a beautifully installed museum, and judging by the fact that I couldn’t find any of the art at the exhibit on the internet to put on this site, I realize it took a lot of effort to put the series together. The picture above is not from the exhibit but from another organization, but it portrays scenes from the Tale of Ise. It’s rare for a museum to gather items from many sources to narrate a single theme. Though I didn’t know much about the story of Ise, I found it was a great way to get an overview of the different styles of art during the Edo Period.

One thought on “Edo Portrayals of Courtly Love”

  1. [Didn’t Yukio Mishima maintain that “all true love is unrequited”? This unites him perfectly with the essential spirit of Western European Courtly Romance. He expressed the quintessence of this doctrine in his stort “The Priest of Shiga Templa and His Love”.

    Dear Friends:

    This February, 2008, we have published a book entitled Shadow of the Rose: The Esoterism of the Romantic Tradition. The themes we cover include The Metaphysics of Romantic Love; Spiritual Courtesy; Love in the Imaginal Realm; A Comparison of Muslim and Christian Chivalry; The Fedeli d’Amore; The Templars and the Holy Grail; Love, Human and Divine; Love in the Kali-Yuga; Armed Courtesy; Love Against the World.
    During our 30-year marriage, we have come to understand how deeply “the World” hates human love – particularly love between a man and a woman, which is not considered “politically correct.” Romance has not just faded out – it has been systematically cursed. And our shared interest in traditional metaphysics has revealed to us both the exalted station from which Romance ultimately derives – that of God’s most intimate Self-Knowledge – and also the infernal depth of the evil that hates Romantic Love, and wants more than anything to wipe it off the face of the earth, as part of its ongoing agenda: the deconstruction of the human form.
    If the World fails to incite rivalry between a husband and a wife, it may draw its final weapon: to stir up rivalry between one’s human beloved and God. Satan too has his great intellectuals, his “fallen cherubim”, and one of their ploys is the attempt to separate God’s Transcendence from His Immanence, placing each in the shadow of the other, playing one against the other in our confused and darkened minds — because nothing threatens the Prince of Darkness like human love seen and known and lived in the light of Divine Love.
    I (Charles Upton) have composed the “intellectual” part of this book: metaphysical discourse, psycho-social criticism, history. My writing, being expressive, comes out to meet you. I write about Spiritual Romance, as if it were a kind of mental or imaginative understanding of something.
    I (Jennifer Doane Upton) have composed the “existential” part of this book: spiritual meditations, poems in prose and verse, written directly out of the sometimes grim depths of Spiritual Romance itself. My writing offers you nothing; it makes no appeals. Take it, or leave it alone; just be aware of your choice.

    Charles Upton and Jennifer Doane Upton

    Shadow of the Rose: The Esoterism of the Romantic Tradition: Sophia Perennis, 2008; 184pp. $17.50 [£9.95]. Available through http://www.barnesandnoble.com , http://www.amazon.com , and http://www.amazon.co.uk. RESELLERS: This book is distributed through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bertrams and Gardners; query jameswetmore@mac.com for further information.

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