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During the golden age of the Japanese court, from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, poetic talent helped secure one’s station in life. From that time forward, finely calligraphed poems, religious texts, and fictional narratives were often blended with pictorial images, each complementing and embellishing the other.

By the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, after a century of warfare had dulled respect for the warrior’s system of government, artists and intellectuals looked back to the golden age of the court for inspiration. In 1608, the Tales of Ise, a court narrative compiled in the tenth century, was the first story to be illustrated, printed, and bound into a set of books. This deluxe printing, and the lesser copies made in its wake, began the distribution of courtly literature to the general public. Quotations from courtly narratives began to be used as decoration, appearing on paintings, textiles and clothing, lacquerware, ceramics, and later, single-sheet woodblock prints.

Many of the works in this exhibition were produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although the artists portrayed the poets of the golden age, they often showed them masked, in the guise of prostitutes and others, or ridiculed in satiric poetry.

- Hollis Goodall, Curator, Japanese Art (2007)