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Exhibition details for 21511 - 'A Modern Collection of Genji in Colour'
'A Modern Collection of Genji in Colour'
contains 54 images
'A Modern Collection of Genji in Colour'
This woodblock series by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1786-1864) is entitled 'A Modern Collectiton of Genji in Colour' (Ima Genji nishikie awase) and was published by Sanoya Kihei (Sanoki, Kikakudo) between 1852 and 1854. The series consists of 54 medium-sized printed sheets which correspond to the 54 chapters of Murasaki Shikibu's eleventh century classic, 'The Tale of Genji' (Genji monogatari). Murasaki's novel focuses on the character of Prince Genji, and describes the romantic rivalries and political intrigues of medieval court life.

Edo-period novelist Ryutei Tanehiko's (1783-1843) illustrated serial novel 'A Fake Murasaki and A Rustic Genji' (Nise Murasaki inaka Genji) drew inspiration from Murasaki's 'The Tale of Genji' and popularised scenes and characters from the story. Kunisada worked closely with Tanehiko and provided the illustrations for all 38 volumes of 'A Fake Murasaki and A Rustic Genji' published between 1828 and 1842 by Tsuruya Kiemon. Tanehiko's Genji was 'rustic' in the sense that it used the language of Edo commoners. Although Tanehiko transposed the action from the Heian period to the late 15th century Muromachi period, the characters in Tanehiko's tale were dressed in contemporary Edo fashions. In Tanehiko's novel, Prince Genji was replaced with the heroic character of Prince Mitsuuji. The refashioning of Prince Genji as Prince Mitsuuji allowed Edo-period artists a greater degree of freedom from official censors in the retelling of the Genji tales. The series became a best-seller and sold over 10,000 copies.

Tanehiko died in 1842 from aggravated ill health (or suicide). His sudden demise has been attributed to the harsh treatment he received from the Tokugawa government censors during a crackdown in 1841-3 known as the Tenpo Reforms. During this period, punishment was meted out to those accused of corroding public morals. In the wake of these reforms, a small number of print artists, authors and actors were fined, manacled or banished.

In the 1850s, ten years after Tanehiko's death, the popularity of Genji-related prints still endured, and Kunisada continued to profit from the success of 'A Fake Murasaki and A Rustic Genji' by reworking the novel's illustrations. Thousands of Genji pictures were published to satisfy the public's Genji obsession. Commercial household products were branded with Genji-related motifs and kabuki theatres responded to the success of Tanehiko's novel with Genji inspired productions.

Tanehiko's novel had appealed to young women and may even have been read by women and consorts of the shogun's court. At the time of their publication, it was even believed that the gorgeous interiors that featured in Kunisada's illustrations for the novel were based upon the real chambers of the Tokugawa shogun Ienari (r. 1786-1837). Kunisada's Genji prints can be regarded as late Edo period fashion plates that aimed to present the most sumptuous kimono designs and interior decorations to an avid, largely female readership. Kunisada invented Prince Mitsuuji's signature lobster-tail topknot and an amusing story survives that describes how a wealthy pawnbroker was arrested and prosecuted for dressing up as the novel's protagonist and parading along the Sumida River embankment! The exquisitely dressed romantic and heroic figures that appear in 'A Modern Collection of Genji in Colour' provided the Edo public with a world of fantasy and escape during a time of government oppression and censure.

Three other Genji-themed series appear in the Henry Dyer collection of woodblock prints. They are 'The Twelve Months' (Junikagetsu no uchi) (1850-1851) and 'Faithful Depictions of the Figure of the Shining Prince' (Sono sugata hikaru no utsushie) (c.1852) by Utagawa Kunisada, and 'Murasaki Shikibu Genji Cards' (Murasaki Shikibu Genji karuta) (1857) by Baichoro Kunisada II, Kunisada's son in law and successor.