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Tales and Legends in Japanese Art
Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700

Tales and Legends in Japanese Art
June 21 to January 4, 2004

Enduring and familiar tales based on court literature and poetry, religious teachings, historical events and legends from both Japan and China were popular subjects for Japanese artists. Paintings appeared in a variety of formats from folding screens and hanging scrolls, which could be appreciated by a group of guests, to albums and handscrolls that were reserved for private enjoyment. Fans, boxes and trays were also decorated with these familiar scenes. Between June 21 and Jan. 4, 2004, the Freer Gallery of Art will exhibit 38 outstanding examples of this pictorial narrative Japanese art dating from the 13th to 19th-century.

One of the most commonly illustrated stories-several examples of which are on view-was the popular court narrative "Tale of Genji," which describes the adventures of a prince whose romantic escapades rival those of the West's Don Juan. Written in the 11th century by the lady Murasaki Shikibu, "Genji" is considered the oldest novel in the world. The famous "Tales of Ise," a 10th-century classic for which illustrations are also on view, contains poems and brief prose episodes. In Japan, both sets of tales had the fame of Shakespeare's plays in the English-speaking world and were so familiar that scenes could be recognized at a glance and were sometimes parodied.

Tales of famous battles and supernatural legends also appeared on illustrated narrative handscrolls. The introduction to Japan of Zen Buddhism by 13th-century Chinese monks revitalized interest by educated Japanese aristocrats and warriors in the Chinese language and culture, and brought with its teachings a whole new repertoire of allegories, legends and historical accounts for illustration.

Objects on view include:

  • handscroll painted using full color, silver and gold, illustrating the popular "Tale of the Crane," which teaches that good deeds will be rewarded
  • painting of Hanshan and Shide, two legendary figures in Zen Buddhism
  • illustrations of a scene from the Chinese "Song of Everlasting Sorrow," which recounts the Emperor Ming Huang's tragic love for his concubine Yang Guifei
  • a handscroll depicting a vivid pictorial account of the historic Battle of Nagashino in 1575 between leaders vying to control and unify Japan
  • two contrasting versions - one on a hand scroll and the other in the form of fan sketches-of the "Tale of Shuten Doji," which chronicles the slaying of the drunken giant Shuten Doji by the heroic warrior popularly known as Raiko
  • several examples of Japanese paintings, including an early 13th-century work, executed in a delicate, courtly mode of ink painting known as "hakubyo"

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries' Web site at

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