Narrative Paintings in Asian Art at the SBMA

‘Story-Telling’ Examines Multiple Strategies for Visual Narrative

“Dawn in the Geisha Quarters,” an Edo-period, mid-17th-century painting by an unknown Japanese artist, is on view now at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

This exhibition, which features eight exemplary narrative paintings from a range of Asian art traditions and is on view through February 25 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, emphasizes the versatility of these cultures when it comes to expressing stories through images. It also serves as a reminder of the complex interweaving of fables and beliefs that links Tibet to India, for example, and Japan to China. Whether one is looking at a continuous narrative presented in a single frame or a scroll annotated with text that goes on for many episodes, these works all provide evidence of the centrality of narrative to the maintenance and transfer of religious beliefs and structures of feeling across not only the centuries but also linguistic and geographic boundaries.

For example, the Jataka tales that describe previous incarnations of Gautama Buddha are native to India, but here three of them show up as the subjects of an early 19th-century painting from Eastern Tibet. In each, a king experiences his emerging Buddha nature through feeling extraordinary empathy. Whether that empathy involves understanding an elephant or helping a mysteriously bottomless traveling priest, the message is the same — act generously in this life and you will receive karmic upgrades in future ones. Exquisite transitional passages depicting clouds and mountains serve to both separate and unify the various episodes into a single composition.

Two paintings from India tell stories from the life of Krishna. In one, Krishna’s brother, Balarama, patron of farmers and cowherds, looks on as the righteous one wades in to liberate a score of bedeviled bovines. If this action piques your interest, consider it satisfied by an adjacent panel, “Krishnalila,” which contains illustrations of nearly 100 separate such episodes. Don’t worry about picking him out; Krishna is easy to spot, as his skin is always bright blue.

On the opposite side of the gallery, there’s a magnificent 18th-century scroll from China titled “Farewell by a Bridge.” The artist Zhang Yin has illustrated the scene in such a way that a marvelous landscape nearly dwarfs the two mortal holy men who say goodbye at the foot of a small bridge. Although the men are diminished by the giant tree behind them, they must be very special people to deserve to have their parting memorialized in a painting on which such extraordinary representational resources have been lavished.

Two of the highlights in this small but mighty exhibit come from Japan. The colorful 17th-century painting “Dawn in the Geisha Quarters” offers a delightful depiction of life in the notorious ukiyo, or “floating world,” of the Edo period, 1600-1867. While the premise that prostitutes and their customers would wake up at dawn to watch a cockfight may seem unlikely, taken as a fable symbolizing other, more intimate acts, the lively scene comes into a suitably soft focus.

The masterpiece of masterpieces here is a vertically oriented ink painting from circa 1792 by the Japanese artist Kushiro Unsen. This big, lyrical image pays tribute to a famous episode in the history of Chinese poetry, the “Literary Gathering at Lanting” convened by the calligrapher/poet Wang Xizhi at the Orchid Pavilion in 353 CE. Poets gathered to play a drinking game in which floating cups of wine became cues for the writing of poems, and the incident has since served in both China and Japan as an inspiration for gatherings devoted to the cultivation of poetry. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art will continue the tradition on Sunday, January 21, with “Learning to Love the Literati,” an event celebrating the release of a new book of poetry inspired by the museum and written by 41 area poets, including Chryss Yost, Alison Bailey, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Ron Alexander, and many more. For reservations, contact the museum at


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