Poets who express one’s most intimate feelings, heroes whose glorious feats resound through the ages, courtiers whose grace and elegance are perpetuated through written descriptions: poetry and prose reflect the emotions and aspirations of the society that produced these literary forms. The Japanese narrative tradition is full of tales of heroism, power, glory, and the vicissitudes of life and reversals of fortune, whereas more personal expressions of feeling are relegated to the serious genres of poetry. Both the prose and poetic forms are important components of the Japanese literary tradition.
The Japanese printmaking tradition evolved, at least in part, from a tradition of book illustration. The prints that are included in this exhibition demonstrate the various ways in which Japanese printmakers referred back to and utilized the richness of this literary tradition. In addition to depictions of poets, an illustration for the poetic cycle The Eight Views of Ōmi (Ōmi hakkei) is included here. Illustrations of narratives or tales, known in Japanese as monogatari, form the major part of this exhibition. Some of the samurai tales depicted here derive from the Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari), which chronicles the conflict between the Taira and Minomoto clans as they vied for political power at the end of the twelfth century. Others derive from legends surrounding the great heroes of the past, like Minamoto Musashi. Whatever their source, the printmaker’s images make it clear that the literary tradition was a rich source of inspiration for Japanese printmakers of the Edo period (1600-1868).