Scenes from the Tale of Genji (detail), Japanese, Edo period, 1603-1868, second half 17th century, Color and gold on paper, 66 x 146 in.

For anyone dazzled or baffled by the extreme styles on view at SAM’s new downtown exhibition Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion, opening Thursday, a visit to Volunteer Park to see Legends, Tales, Poetry: Visual Narrative in Japanese Art will provide some context: Japanese fashion has always been far out.

A thousand years ago, during Japan’s Heian period, clothing was so intricate and exquisitely refined that deciphering the layers of symbolism in a woman’s appearance was akin to reading a poem. That’s the era when court lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote her epic story of love and exile, The Tale of Genji. In what is generally believed to be the earliest existing novel, she described the intricate social hierarchy and poetic rituals of her restricted world and the mazelike architecture that encased it.

That rarified lifestyle can be challenging for 21st-century readers to envision. Fortunately, artists have long been illustrating Genji and the exhibit Legends, Tales, Poetry has wonderful images from that story, as well as other books and poems, on view—all from the museum’s outstanding collection. Gorgeous silk-mounted scrolls and screens are the mainstay of the exhibit, supplemented with ceramics, prints, textiles, photographs and lacquerwork dating from the 13th century to the present. These artworks, chosen for their narrative themes, offer a glimpse of ancient Japanese court life—and a reminder of how far ahead of European styles Japanese painting could be.

Fireman's coat, Japanese, Edo period, 1603-1868, 19th century, cotton cloth with indigo dye (sashiko), 49.25 x 49.25 in. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum; gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.417

Take the cinematic technique known as fukinuki yatai, or “blown off roof.” In a 17th-century screen depicting scenes from The Tale of Genji, it gives viewers a god-like perspective into a royal interior. Several ladies, cushioned in their separate, silk-lined chambers like prized mares in their stalls, don’t seem to notice the dense gold cloud that streams over the landscape and seeps into their magically uncovered pavilion. The palace is adrift in gold, unmoored from time and place, and the women of Lady Murasaki’s time haven’t aged, still wrapped in their billowy layers of patterned kimono and trailing their heel-length black hair.

Other highlights of the exhibition include a masterful landscape, painted by Sesshu Toyo in about 1500. The nuanced flurry of brushstrokes somehow perfectly captures the essence of a place, prefiguring European forays into impressionism and abstraction by hundreds of years. At the entrance to the show, a superb 19th-century fireman’s jacket, adorned with busy, human-like hares, presumably signifies good luck and protection from danger. It’s not just Japanese women who value imaginative clothing.

Legends, Tales, Poetry: Visual Narrative in Japanese Art
Thru July 21, Seattle Asian Art Museum, $5–$7

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