History of Art and Architecture

HAA Annual James and Susanne Wilkinson Lecture with Dr. Mimi Yiengpruksawan

Thursday, September 26, 2019 - 4:00pm

Frick Fine Arts Building, Room 202

"TWILIGHT WORLD OF SCREENS? REALLY? Women, Art, and Agency in Late Heian Japan"

Dr. Mimi Yiengpruksawan - Professor of Art History, Yale University

For decades it has been a commonplace that the Buddhist art practices of the Kyoto elite in the 11th and 12th centuries were for the most part the preserve of a man’s world of statesmanship, faith, and patronage. Among the most influential of such patrons were Fujiwara no Michinaga, his son Yorimichi, and their circle of gentlemen friends. A close look at primary records of the period, such as the diaries of Michinaga and his associates, tells a different story and allows another picture of their world to come into view. We see that, in that world, women of the Fujiwara and Minamoto houses—Fujiwara no Senshi (Akiko), Fujiwara no Shōshi (Akiko), Fujiwara no Kanshi (Hiroko), and Minamoto no Rinshi (Tomoko) in particular—were the equals of these men if not their superiors in Buddhist arts patronage of their day. In this lecture Professor Yiengpruksawan provides evidence for this claim and then considers the role of modern analysis and interpretation of the Tale of Genji—a haunting story of love and loss written by Murasaki Shikibu during her years in service to Michinaga’s daughter Shōshi—as having skewed and even obscured our picture of women at the Heian court. Her hope is that, by drawing attention to the primary textual and visual records, and stepping away from generalizations about the lives of Heian women based on modern and often gendered commentary, we can break free of assertions that, compliant and servile, the Heian woman lived in what Ivan Morris once called “a twilight world of screens.” That Heian woman, it must be said, is not to be found in the actual historical and visual record, which delivers instead a woman of great vision and agency in the emergence of traditional Japanese culture, holding her own in a complex world of politics, and flourishing there.

Reception to follow