Lovers of Classical Japanese art will be delighted by the current exhibition at Museum Yamato Bunkakan in Nara which traces the development of “Yamato-e”, a self-consciously Japanese type of painting that emerged in the ninth century, with examples from its genesis up to those of the mid-nineteenth century. Yamato-e distinguished itself from Chinese paintings by depicting scenery unique to Japan using an equally unique style and distinctive techniques of composition.
The earliest piece on show is the twelfth century Nezame monogatari emaki – a picture scroll of the courtly romance story Awakening at Midnight – and it well represents the characteristics of Yamato-e. Although Yamato-e were initially painted onto sliding door panels and folding screens (and because of their architectural incorporation have not been easily preserved) they were also used for fine narrative picture scrolls like this one as illustrative pictorial breaks between blocks of script. A focus on nature and the seasons is one of the major preoccupations of the Yamato-e and this is amply demonstrated in the delicate clouds of pale pink cherry blossoms, the swooping branches and long green leaves of the weeping willows, and the mossy lichens on the tree bark. The palace quarters are depicted with the “blown-off roof” technique which allows the reader/viewer of the scroll to peer into the rooms as if from above and to observe the private interiors peopled by languid ladies of the court, male courtiers, and monks, as well as their musical instruments, furnishings, and even decorated panel paintings. The graceful bending tangle of tree branches, the long ink-black tresses of the women and the folds and layers of their robes, and the straight lines ruling the architectural elements depicted all point to the close relationship between calligraphy and pictorial art in Japan – the pleasure in the possibilities of the line. Today the colours of this old scroll – which is a National Treasure – are muted, but scatterings of tiny squares of gold leaf indicate its original gleaming beauty and the exhibit offers an experience of how popular literature was enjoyed among the upper classes in the early period of Yamato-e.
Section from “Nezame Monogatari Emaki” picture scroll (from museum flyer)
When a character in The Tale of Genji (said to be the first modern novel ever written, and now a thousand years old) remarks on the dangers of consuming fictional tales of romance, it was probably this type that he was talking about. But The Tale of Genji itself was to be broadly consumed and its scrolls and later albums also illustrated with lavish Yamato-e. The genre was maintained by the Tosa school of painters in the Edo period (1615-1868) and their version is on display here by way of an album of “Genji paintings”. At around the same time, an artist named Tawaraya Sotatsu was bringing about a new style of painting called “Rinpa” that drew on the Yamato-e of the Heian period (ninth to twelfth century) and he created scenes from the famous novel – like Genji and Awakening at Midnight, a courtly romance – The Tale of Ise, which are exhibited here. Sotatsu and his followers also continued and developed the focus on Japanese nature that Yamato-e celebrated, but often used colour or ink on paper without outlines so that the natural wash defined the shape and even the dimensionality of the flowers and branches they depicted.
Two imposing folding screens by Ogata Tamechika, “Spring and Autumn Screens with Scenes of Hawking and Mushroom Hunting”, are beautiful examples of another Yamato-e tradition of depicting seasonal customs. From the nineteenth century, the painted figures are much more filled-out and bolder than those found in the art of the earlier periods, but the rolling landscape and subject matter borrows from the undying Heian period artistic subject matter and conventions. In many ways, the screens are not only decorative but quite narrative: a child balances precariously on a tree to reach for some mushrooms over a ravine, while on the opposing screen men trot along on horseback with their falcons. These are just a few of the pieces on the display in this informative and absorbing exhibition, which relays the history of a unique form of art consciously developed to highlight Japan’s native landscapes, seasons and architecture, and to illustrate its well-loved novelistic and poetic traditions. It will appeal to lovers of art and literature alike.
Museum Yamato Bunkakan is situated within a beautiful and spacious garden planted with flowers significant to each month, admission to which is included in the museum ticket price.
Adults 630 yen / High school and college students 420 yen / Elementary and junior high school students free
Discounts for groups of 20 or more persons: 20% off for all members, and free admission for the group leader.
Discounts for physically/mentally-challenged individuals: 20% off for individuals displaying physical disability certificates, etc., and for one caregiver
10:00 am to 5:00 pm (last admission 4:00 pm). Closed on Mondays (note that when a National Holiday falls on a Monday the museum will be closed on the business day following the National Holiday). Also closed at the year-end and throughout the New Year’s holiday, and during breaks between exhibitions.
The museum is located near to Gakuenmae Station on the Kintetsu Nara line, and 7-minutes’ walk from the south exit.
From Osaka (Kintetsu Namba station) take the rapid express towards Nara (around 25 minutes).
From Nara (Kintetsu Nara station) take the rapid express towards Namba (around 10 minutes).
From Kyoto (Kintetsu Kyoto station) take the special express or express, and transfer at Yamato Saidaiji (around 45 minutes).
Please feel free to contact us here at Kansai Treasure Travel any time for further details, travel advice, or a custom tour.