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.