From Princesses to Pop Culture: Bryn Mawr Special Collections’ New Exhibition on the Tale of Genji

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By Deborah Haartz, Staff Writer

Bryn Mawr College opened its new Special Collections exhibition, “The Tale of Genji: From Princesses to Pop Culture”, on Wednesday, Jan. 25 in the Canaday Library.  

The star of the exhibition is an impressive six-fold screen painting by artist Kano Seisen’in Osanobu. The painting, a gift from Helen Burwell Chapin (BMC ‘94) depicts a scene from the seminal Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. In this scene, “the shining prince” Genji sees his lover Murasaki for the first time.

Today the work is in spectacular condition, but this wasn’t always the case. Two years ago, curators from the Philadelphia Museum of Art considered exhibiting the painting, but ultimately decided that structural damages made the screen too fragile for display.

Thanks to two generous grants from the Sumitomo Foundation, Bryn Mawr College was able to send the painting to Nishio Conservation Studios in in Washington D.C. for restoration. The painting is now in near-perfect condition: the wood latticing is strong and secure, and the pigments and paints are well intact.

To give the painting proper context, student curators Anna Moblard, Nina Blomfield (Ph.D. and M.A. candidates in History of Art), and Sarah O’Connell (BMC ’17) created an exhibition that would explore the history and enduring legacy of Murasaki Shikibu’s novel, The Tale of Genji.

The Tale of Genji is a brilliant depiction of court life in Heian period Japan, employing 54 chapters and over 400 characters. It is often considered one of the world’s first novels, and its legacy has spanned from when it was written in the 11th century all the way through modern times.

Evidence of the lasting importance of this novel can also be found in the exhibit, which features Genji-themed items from pop-culture. According to Blomfield, items such as Genji-branded candy, postage stamps, playing cards — even facial blotting papers — show the enduring legacy of Murasaki Shikibu’s novel.

She added, “The Genji is everywhere.”

The exhibition runs until March 5 and is open daily from 11:00 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. On Sunday, Feb. 26, conservator Yoshi Nishio will be visiting Bryn Mawr College to discuss the restoration process. The lecture will be held in Carpenter 21 at 5:00 p.m.


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