Ogata Korin: Irises. Paire of sixfold screens. Color on gold foil over paper.
Size: 150.9 cm. by 338.8 cm. for each screen. Signed: Hokkyo Korin. Seal: Iryo. Edo period,c.1705.
Nezu Art Museum, Tokyo (formerly in the Nishi Hongan-ji, kyoto). Designated as a National Treasure.
Perhaps the most popular-almost overfamiliar-design in all of Japanese art is Korin's panorama of iris flowers spreading across two golden screens. In ensemble and in detail this work has been reproduced as frequently and abundantly as, shall we say, Botticelli's Primavera. And perhaps for the same reasons: the same eternal appeal of rebirth in spring and the same unfailing delight elicited by a painter's perfect assurance in translating a force of nature into his own pictorial terms. Excessive repetition may sometimes dull one's appreciation, just as one may feel an excess of spring itself in the fullness of a lavish month of May. But a few months later one is once more enchanted with the prospect of a new spring, with another glimpse of the Primavera, with another encounter with those myriad purple blossoms rising from a golden river .  
The exact date of the creation of the iris screens has never been established, although it is usually placed around 1705. But a date is hardly needed, for one feels certain that this work is a climax in the artist's development. It is the sort of work that can be planned and executed only when a painter is so strong, so unhesitantly assured, that he is able to pick up his brushes almost nonchalantly and toss off a masterpiece that appears organically right, easy, flawless, and unrestrained. Korin almost persuades us that he did nothing more than eavesdrop on nature's own processes and whisk one of her fragments directly onto his screens.
In his last years, between 1705 and 1716, Korin was able to do just that. Into these culminating years of a master's high maturity we must place this work that goes beyond even the Red and White Plum Blossoms in its reductio ad ultimum. UntiI the present owner brought this pair of screens to Tokyo in 1913, they were the property of the Nishi Hongan-ji in Kyoto, and very Iikely they had been painted for that same temple, which holds as much importance in the Iife of Korin as the Daigo-ji did in the Iife of Sotatsu. We know that Korin often visited the Nishi Hongan-ji and valued his connection with the abbot.
The theme of irises growing along a stream was derived from an ancient poem, in the characteristic literary and painterly "renaissance" way of the Koetsu- Korin schooI. Korin undoubtedly had in mind the "Yatsuhashi" poem from the "Azuma-kudari" chapter of the Ise Monogatari, that inexhaustible romance of the tenth century which had also occupied so large a share of Sotatsu's thoughts. The tale that became a favorite subject for Korin's design recounts how the poet Narihira and his companions on a long journey stopped to rest at Mikawa (in the present Shizuoka Prefecture) beside a river bank abloom with irises. An old rustic bridge of eight wooden planks reminded the weary travelers of a similar spot in Kyoto, for which they expressed their yearning in a series of nostalgic verses. Their sadness did not prevent them from turning their poetizing into a game with a set rule that each line begin with a syllable from the word for iris: kakitsubata. Here is Narihira's poem, with a translation by Frits Vos:
Karagoromo As I have got a wife
Kitsutsu nare ni shi To whom I have been attached,
Tsuma shi areba Just as one gets used to and fond of
Harubaru kinoru The skirt of a beautiful garment
Tabi o shi zo omou. While wearing it-
I feel miserable about this very joumey
On which I have come so far.
The eight-plank bridge and the iris flowers appeared often in paintings, ceramics, lacquer ware, fans, and other artistic products of the Korin school. For his large interpretation on full-size screens Korin selected the simplest statement, leaving out bridge and stream, omitting such decorative accessories as lacquer and mother-of-pearl, and confining himself entirely to the flowers against an abstract golden area. He even left out his favorite device of ripping waves. Nothing but a streak of purple flowers and green pointed leaves against the small shimmering squares of gold foil that represent river and air and sky.
Korin was an artist of so many facets that no single work can contain them all, but Irises comes close to such a summation. Typical is its start in literature and its termination in decorative refinement. This range, which was also characteristic of the Koetsu-Sotatsu interest, was pressed by Korin to the ultimate degree. Sotatsu had been content to halt at a dramatic climax, where decorative considerations sustained the literary stimulus yet remained subservient to the poetic or imaginative ingredients. Korin relaxed the poetic thread and tightened the decorative one. Perhaps one may forget that his iris flowers had their seed in the Ise Monogatari and accept them directly for their flamboyant splendor of color and their acute space relationships. In this regard Korin is more "modern" than Sotatsu. He could almost qualify as a twentieth-century abstract painter-almost as a forerunner of Matisse. This is stated neither in praise not in blame but as a matter-of-fact recognition of their similarity in aesthetic approach.
All images and information from The Art of the Japanese Screen by Elise Grilli.
Walker/Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo.
1970. .