The world of Japanese art would be quite different today had the problems of Ogata Korin (1658-1716) not begun to accumulate in 1687.

First came the death of his father, a wealthy textile merchant with a web of personal and business ties to Kyoto’s elite. Then there was an embarrassing lawsuit by an old flame, the daughter of an influential trading family, with whom Korin had fathered a child. Though the case was quickly settled, Korin was compelled to hand over one of his properties and a large amount of money to support the upbringing of his offspring.

Ogata Korin: Art in Early Modern Japan, by Frank Feltens
240 pages

If this had been an isolated incident, his fortunes might have easily recovered. But, as Frank Feltens, an associate curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art in Washington D.C., writes in his recently published and informative monograph “Ogata Korin: Art in Early Modern Japan,” Korin had a “penchant for engaging in amorous liaisons with uncertain (and sometimes unfortunate) outcomes.” In the decade that followed the passing of his father, Korin sired at least three other children with three different women. To make matters worse, he spent his money carelessly and was often in debt. By the mid-1690s, and not yet 30 years old, he was all but bankrupt.

This changed the course of Japanese art. Until then, Korin had been a carefree libertine, a talented dilettante unconcerned with the need to make a living. Now, faced with financial ruin, he had little choice but to harness his considerable — albeit until then largely neglected — artistic talents to regain some stability. And so it was that over the following two decades, Korin not only succeeded in climbing out of the financial abyss he dug for himself, he also created some of the most influential and memorable works of art in the history of the country.

But first, there were a few problems to address. To begin with, Korin had no professional training. He had not apprenticed with, nor belonged to, any of the large studios that dominated artistic production in Japan at the time, such as the Kano school, which was based in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and trained most painters employed by the Tokugawa shogunate, or the Tosa school, which operated out of Kyoto and drew much of its patronage from the imperial court and the old aristocracy.

Still, Korin was not starting from scratch. He had taken painting lessons as a child, part of the broad arts regimen that his father, a highly cultivated man, had put in place for his three boys, who were also schooled in literature from the Heian Period (794-1185) and classical theater. As Feltens writes, it was an education grounded “in beauty rather than business.”

Korin’s personal passion was noh theater. From his youth, he received private lessons from some of the best masters and he regularly attended plays. By age 18, he was already performing for members of the Kyoto nobility. This proved a boon for his future career: The theater was “a prime venue for early modern socializing,” Feltens explains, and noh became Korin’s “main conduit for attaching himself to the aristocracy and for cultivating potential clients for paintings.” Most importantly, it was thanks to noh that Korin met and befriended Nijo Tsunahira (1672-1732), the son-in-law of an emperor and future tireless supporter. It was Nijo’s wife who gave Korin his first recorded commission, in 1695.

Ogata Korin's 'Mt. Utsu, from the Tales of Ise' (early 18th century) | FELTENSFIG62
Ogata Korin’s ‘Mt. Utsu, from the Tales of Ise’ (early 18th century) | FELTENSFIG62

From the moment he turned to art to earn his keep, Korin wanted to appeal to a wide range of patrons to maximize income. He painted, of course, at first mostly in small formats — on fans or tobacco pouches — but he also designed exquisite lacquer boxes. Later, he worked with his brother, Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), a famous ceramicist, to produce a wide range of dishware.

Interestingly, Korin did not work directly with lacquer, nor did he mold and bake the wares he designed with his sibling. We know from his extensive archive, which is preserved at the Kyoto National Museum, that his role was akin to an artistic director. He sketched the motifs and laid down the overall design, but he let other artisans do much of the actual work, merely supervising the creative process.

Painting was different, however. Except toward the end of his life, when Korin probably worked with a small number of assistants, his pictorial production was all his own — and uniquely so. He prized bold colors, often paired with gold or metallic pigments. He loved repeating simple patterns — flowers for instance — as a composer constantly returning to an enchanting melody.

And then there was his tarashikomi technique, the dripping of ink on color recently applied, and thus still wet. All these elements are present in “Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges),” one of his masterpieces, and its sister work, “Irises,” which is the collection of the Nezu Museum in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. Korin’s aesthetics became the essence of the Rinpa school, which is named after him and is now considered one of the most important artistic movements of pre-modern Japan. Not bad for a man who, not long before, had been within a hair’s breadth of losing it all.

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