The Tale of Genji from Princesses to Pop


Each of the three female archetypes of the Tale, Genji’s mother Kiritsubo, his forbidden love Fujitsubo, and his beloved wife Murasaki, is associated with springtime and purple-hued flowers. Kiritsubo is the lady of the “Paulownia Pavilion,” named for the purple blooms of the Paulownia tree. Fujitsubo is known for the beautiful purple wisteria vines in her courtyard, and Murasaki’s name, which is often translated as “Lavender,” refers to a royal shade of purple. The color purple is employed in the Tale not only to link the key women in Genji's life, but also to signify his high status. To this day, the color continues to be associated with the Japanese Imperial Household – as evidenced by the vibrant purple carrying cloths donated to the College by Elizabeth Gray Vining, Bryn Mawr alumna and tutor to Emperor Akihito in his youth.

In Genji and more broadly in Heian elite culture, color selection displayed one’s aesthetic sensibility and refined sensitivity to the beauties of nature. Within the court, one’s poetry, musical performance, and tasteful combination of dyed garments were responses to the natural beauty of the shifting seasons or of the waning and waxing moon. Such sensitivities play a dominant role in the aesthetics of The Tale of Genji as well as the various objects displayed in this exhibition. For example, plants and flowers, such as the irises depicted in this ivory okimono and in this print by the Kano-trained artist Hokusai (1760–1849), are deployed frequently in the Tale for their poetic allusions. In Osanobu’s screen we can study the delicacy of springtime dress in the figures of Murasaki and her attendants. Similar intricately layered robes can be seen in the display of Hinamatsuri dolls, whose traditional dress is still worn today for the springtime Girl’s Day Festival. 

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