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Members' Research Report Archive

Emperor GoShirakawa and the Image of Classical Japan

Kristopher W. Kersey, [University of California, Berkeley]
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, 2012–2014

Few emperors in Japanese history rival the renown, if not the infamy, of emperor GoShirakawa 後白河天皇 (1127–1192 CE). The tenor of his patronage and depth of his engagement with painting, poetry, and especially song are remarkable—all the more so considering that he ruled, as retired sovereign, during a period marred by frequent violence, sly intrigues, and incessant machinations. Given this context, some see in his patronage and acquisitiveness the workings of an adept soft-power strategist, while others lampoon him as a feckless dilettante whose profligacy cost the imperial family its political might. For with his death in 1192, the “classical” Heian era (784–1192) came to a close, and real political power shifted to what was to be the first of several martial governments that would rule Japan in the imperial family’s stead for nearly eight centuries thereafter. While at the Center this year, I have worked to complete a dissertation that addresses the complex interplay of inscription and depiction found in the objects created during this politically tumultuous and yet artistically innovative era.


Calligraphy attributed to Fujiwara no Sadanobu 藤原定信 (1088–1156), page from the Tsurayuki II volume (貫之集下) of Anthology of the Thirty-Six Poets (Sanjū rokunin kashū 三十六人歌集), early twelfth century. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

It is a historical situation ripe for elegy and nostalgia, and indeed the history of Japan, its literature, and its art reflect this. For art historians, the name GoShirakawa immediately calls to mind the Hall of the Lotus King (Rengeōin 蓮華王院), a temple founded by the emperor that housed his vast and storied collection of paintings, among which numbered several of what are now the most celebrated examples of Japanese painting. Rather than take up these canonical paintings, I have turned my attention instead to several fragmentary contemporaneous manuscripts. Despite the centrality of these artifacts in the visual culture of the period, their relative marginality in the history of Japanese painting is due, I argue, to persistent methodological biases that have sometimes erected illusory divisions between sculpture and painting, the secular and the sacred, and—most problematically—the processes of inscription and depiction.

The first of these manuscripts is the provocatively titled Eyeless Sutra (Menashikyō 目無し経), a once-five-volume set of handscrolls with monochromatic line drawings and Buddhist sutra text layered in a complex palimpsest. Epigraphical and textual analysis of the colophons paired with close looking at the stratigraphy of the marks calls into question the dating and the romantic creation story of this National Treasure. Unfettered by the mythos of its creation, one can look anew at perhaps more salient features of the work, such as the peculiar relationship of the inscribed sutra text and the airily faint underdrawings. Upon close inspection, it becomes clear that these two strata inflected one another, effecting an estrangement through allegoresis, as multiple narratives—pictorial, historical, textual, and so on—were woven together. Thus we are able to recover, arguably, a mode of viewing long lost to modern readers.

My shoptalk provided a forum for indispensible feedback concerning another beguiling manuscript, The Significance of A (Ajigi 阿字義), a handscroll that contains two striking paintings of seated aristocratic figures, each with the Siddhaṃ grapheme A inscribed within his chest. These pictures are preceded by two texts concerning a ritual advocated by esoteric Buddhist exegetes whereby the Siddhaṃ A is visualized, imagined, or envisioned as text inscribed upon an efflorescent, lotus-shaped heart. Rather than take an illustration-based approach, my analysis and focuses on how the materiality of the sign, as ink on paper, is held in tension with the figures’ pictoriality in such a way as to reify more complex aspects of the esoteric Buddhist semiotic philosophies that underwrite this practice. Such attention to the physicality of the material is then extended in the dissertation to similar artifacts, especially those found within the cavities of joined-wood sculptural icons.

The final central artifact is Anthology of the Thirty-Six Poets (Sanjūrokunin kashū 三十六人歌集), a monumental thirty-nine-volume series of manuscripts in codex. The discussion here returns to the issue of overlay and scrutinizes how the collaged paper ground inflects the processes of inscription. The chapter argues that the indiscrete blending of inscriptive and depictive marks in these works provides insight into the affective performativity of inscription, an approach that yields results concerning the treatment of calligraphic morphology that often run counter to style-based discourse. A key issue in this chapter is the manufactured polysemy achieved through the use of collaged paper grounds (tsugigami 継ぎ紙; literally, “joined papers”). Taken together, these analyses are meant to suggest the need for an epistemological and methodological reassessment of the parameters of “word” and “image” in the art of this period and beyond.