NEW YORK — Melissa McCormick has been teaching “The Tale of Genji,” one of the world’s first novels, for nearly 20 years, enthralling undergraduates with its unlikely female author: A lady-in-waiting writing about romance, family, court life, and politics in 11th-century Japan. Now, McCormick has expanded her classroom to include visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her co-curated exhibition on the classic story opened on March 5.
“The one common response to ‘Genji’ is awe,” said McCormick, professor of Japanese art and culture and self-described “Genji geek,” reflecting on “how a mere court lady could have written a 1,300-page prose tale interspersed with 795 poems in 54 chapters. One of the most remarkable things about it is how it has this uncanny way of reading like a modern novel.”
McCormick conceived the exhibition “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated” and proposed it to Japanese art curator John T. Carpenter, an expert in Heian period calligraphy. Using more than 120 art works displayed in 10 thematically arranged galleries, the show reveals how readers, artists, and patrons have responded to Genji during the past 1,000 years. The team of curators, which also included the Met’s Monika Bincsik and Kyoko Kinoshita, professor of Japanese art history at Tama Art University in Tokyo, highlighted the museum’s astounding holdings alongside more than 50 works from collections in Japan and the U.S., including two of Japan’s National Treasures and several important objects from the Harvard Art Museums.
“I’ve shown them to countless seminars, but now we get to share them with the world and they are pivotal pieces for communicating the themes of the show,” said McCormick about Harvard’s contributions to the exhibit. “We have the ‘Prayer for Genji,’ which is a beautiful book from the 17th century, displayed in a room where we talk about the relationship between Buddhism and ‘The Tale of Genji.’ The text sanctifies the tale by trying to explicate its hidden Buddhist meaning and weaving all 54 chapter titles into a single prayer.”
Other Harvard loans, from the Philip Hofer collection of the Arts of Asia, include two 13th-century manuscripts, among the oldest Genji books to survive; the famous Genji Album from 1510, the oldest complete cycle of Genji paintings and calligraphy in the world; and a rare illustrated libretto of a Genji Noh play from the 17th century depicting a riveting scene of spirit possession and exorcism.
“The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated,” which runs through June 16 at the Met, devotes a room of the exhibition to celebrating the story’s connection to Buddhism. Legend has it that author Murasaki Shikibu was compelled to write the tale at Ishiyamadera Temple outside Kyoto on a night when the moon reflected on Lake Biwa. Portrait icons of Murasaki and a Heian-period Buddhist sculpture of the bodhisattva Nyoirin Kannon, lent by the temple and displayed outside Japan for the first time, celebrate the book’s religious reception and the power of the female author.