“The Tale of Shuten DŌji” Opens at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery March 21

Media only: Ellie Reynolds, 202.633.0521; Elizabeth Bridgforth, 202.633.0521
Public only: 202.633.1000

Vividly illustrated screens, scrolls, fans and printed books tell an ancient Japanese story of a monster, samurai and sake in the exhibition “The Tale of Shuten Dōji,” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery from March 21 through Sept. 20.

With a plot fit for an action movie, this popular legend set in 10th-century Japan begins with news of the abduction of young noblewomen from Kyoto. Under orders from the emperor, samurai heroes disguised as pilgrim monks take off in pursuit, entering the mountain fortress of Shuten Dōji, who turns a fiery shade of red and transforms to a monstrous giant when he drinks sake. After tricking Shuten Dōji into drinking a sake potion, the samurai hero, Minamoto Yorimitsu (948-1021), beheads him, battles his monstrous horde, rescues the surviving women and returns to Kyoto in triumph. The tale proved so popular that it appeared in works commissioned for elite patrons and in widely available printed books.

The exhibition explores the dynamic methods that Japanese artists of the Edo period (1615-1868) developed for rendering action and movement through time and space in illustrated stories. Working on handscrolls and folding screens that allow uninterrupted illustrations of sequences of events, artists created modes of pictorial narratives that approach the effects of modern cinema. Clouds and mist create effects such as fades and dissolves and scenes that appear to zoom in and out.

“This exhibition offers scholars and the public an extraordinary opportunity to explore the dynamic world of Japanese pictorial storytelling before modern film, anime and manga,” said Ann Yonemura, curator of the exhibition and senior associate curator of Japanese art for the Freer and Sackler galleries. A highlight of the exhibition is a set of three handscrolls by Kano Shōun (1637-1702), a professional artist of the Kano school. Shōun depicts the tale in an especially luxurious and vibrant manner on silk, rather than the usual paper, and uses ink, color, gold and silver for illustrations. Calligraphy of these scrolls by an imperial prince and two other noblemen attests to the elite patronage of this work. The other set of handscrolls, by an unknown artist, depict the events vividly in 23 sections of text followed by pictures.

Also on view are preliminary sketches for paintings of the Tale of Shuten Dōji. Hand-painted fans were created by many artists, either for personal use or for mounting in albums or on scrolls.

Presented together for the first time since their acquisition by the Freer and Sackler galleries are two sets of handscrolls, a pair of screens, sketches for a set of fan paintings by Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-1889), book illustrations by Hokusai (1760-1868) and other artists, as well as paintings from the private collections of Joe and Etsuko Price and Robert and Betsy Feinberg.

“The Tale of Shuten Dōji,” is made possible through the generous support of the Anne van Biema Endowment Fund.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public is welcome to visit asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

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Above: Detail, The Tale of Shuten Dōji, scroll three from a set of three,
section seven; Kano Shōun (1637 – 1702); Japan, Edo period, 1700; Handscroll; Ink, color, gold and silver on silk. Purchase, Friends of Asian Arts, F1998.26.