Korin: the late bloomer with innovative in style

by Sachiko Tamashige

Special To The Japan Times

One of the joys of visiting Tokyo’s Nezu Museum in early May, is to catch the annual showing of one of the museum’s most famous works, Ogata Korin’s “Irises,” before stepping outside to appreciate the real irises blooming in its garden.

This spring, Korin’s “Red and White Plum Blossoms” from the MOA Museum of Art collection has been brought together with his “Irises” in a special exhibition to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Titled “Irises and Red and White Plum Blossoms: The Secret of Korin’s Design,” the two folding screens, both of which are National Treasures, are being displayed side by side. It’s a juxtaposition that seems synergistic, each playing off the other, and it aims to help viewers understand Korin’s extraordinary design sense.

Korin, a representative Rinpa school artist, was born in 1658 into a privileged Kyoto family that ran Karigane-ya, a prosperous clothing store whose clients included the Emperor’s consort. The Ogata family were heirs to aesthetic traditions that were shared by Kyoto merchants during the early Edo period (1603-1868), and Korin grew up surrounded by stylish garments and Japan’s best decorative arts, such as lacquerware and screens. He was therefore familiar with works by the likes of Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637) and Tawaraya Sotatsu (c. 1600-1643), founders of the Rinpa school who were to strongly influence both himself and his younger brother Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743).

“The focus of this exhibition is to explore the secrets behind Korin’s design,” says Takeshi Noguchi, chief curator of the Nezu Museum. “The first section traces the pedigree, starting from Sotatsu’s influence, by showcasing Korin’s folding-screen paintings — his bold, decorative patterns — and including paintings attributed to Sotatsu. The following section displays Korin’s sketches alongside Karigane-ya’s design books filled with gorgeous fabric patterns and the “Shinkokinshu Waka Poem Anthology with Plant and Flower Design,” a handscroll in which Koetsu’s elegant writing is highlighted by motifs repeated by woodblock printing in gold and silver pigments. Korin’s pattern repetition for “Irises,” Noguchi explained, may have been inspired by the woodblock printing technique used by his predecessors for the handscroll as well as by kimono designs.

Korin became established as an artist late in life, having pushed himself further after squandering his father’s fortune. “Irises” was created when he was in his mid-40s, around the first pinnacle of his artistic career. Using only green and blue on a gold background, he vividly depicts stylized clumps of irises in a composition that is simple, clear and rhythmical, foreshadowing a modern graphic style. “Red and White Plum Blossoms,” on the other hand, presents a design rich in tension generated by contrasting elements — motion and stillness, dark and light, realism and stylization.

It seems that it was later in life that Korin brought together his design ideas, skills and life experience into his masterpieces, but his decorative art pieces should not be undervalued.

“Korin was first recognized as a maki-e lacquerware artist. He also painted on the pottery produced by his brother Kenzan as well as fans,” says Noguchi. “His brush for painting was used on a variety of decorative and useful objects. For him, there was no distinction between painting and crafts, which made him a superb designer, transcending differences in genres objects and materials.”

“Irises and Red and White Plum Blossoms: The Secret of Korin’s Design” at the Nezu Museum runs till May 17; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (May12-17 till 7 p.m.) ¥1,200. Closed Mon.

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