Ogata Korin’s Irises

Lightly edited on January 31, 2022.

The last of the irises in the Nezu Museum gardens. Photo by H. McGaughey

Tokyo, Japan It rained today, but I had a strong urge to get out and do something, so I went to the Nezu Museum for the last day of an exhibition that included Ogata Kōrin’s pair of folding screens depicting irises (kakitsubatazu).

The museum is located in Omotesandō, an area where many upscale fashion designers have elaborate boutiques, and yet the Nezu Museum itself bridges contemporary design and tradition.  It’s main building was recently rebuilt in metal and glass. Yet its vast tile roof, deep eves, and dim lighting are reminiscent of traditional Japanese architecture.

Behind the museum gallery, the large traditional garden has four tea houses, all of which were in use today by women in gorgeous kimono ostensibly engaged in private tea ceremonies within the clay walls, paper covered windows, and thatched roofs.

The exhibition itself was very nice.  I only wish I had thought to come earlier, perhaps on a weekday morning so I might have avoided the crowds that filled each gallery and milled directly in front of each object, particularly in front of Ogata Kōrin’s iris screens.

Trained by the Kanō masters in his native Kyoto, Kōrin reinvigorated the Rimpa School of painting in the late 17th century by depicting natural themes abstractly with liberal use of precious materials like gold.

Last year, I saw his pair of folding screens of plum blossoms at the MOA Museum of Art in Atami.  The stream passing under the twisted plum trees dotted with white and red flowers is a consistent pattern of abstract swirls.  The banks of the stream and the background are a uniform surface of gold.

Kōrin’s irises are similarly painted on a uniform gold surface, with no distinction between the water below them and the background behind.  The focus is instead on the large ruffled flowers themselves and their configuration on the screens.

The right screen is filled with the flowers, including their green stalks and leaves, while in the left screen the flowers fill only the bottom left half of the screen.  The vacant space above them is almost like a respite from the ostentatious proliferation of flowers in the rest of the composition, and yet even this space is filled with gold.

3 replies on “Ogata Korin’s Irises”

Ah, Kôrin’s “Irises.”

You know, I’m sure I must have passed by the Nezu Museum numerous times, or missed doing so by just a few blocks here or there, and I never quite made the connection.

It’s really something when you get to see such a famous artwork in person, isn’t it? You can see it online and in textbooks so many times, but it’s just nothing compared to the real object. Especially with the gold, which can’t be reproduced properly in a photo.

Lucky that you got to see the plum blossoms byôbu too!

You must be excited about the Noh masks exhibit. I look forward to hearing your reactions and thoughts.

Dear Travis,

Yes, it was great to see the real thing, but I’m afraid I was a little underwhelmed, perhaps because of the overwhelming crowds. It’s hard for art to compete with a stampede, which is why I wish I had been there on a weekday morning.

And definitely, I will post about the noh exhibit next month when I go.

Take care!

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