Ogata Korin (Japanese, 16581716)
Pair of six–panel folding screens; ink and color on gilded paper; Each 70 1/2 in. x 12 ft. 2 1/4 in. (179.1 x 371.5 cm)
Purchase, Louisa Eldridge McBurney Gift, 1953 (53.7.1–2)
This simple yet strikingly dramatic composition is a brilliant orchestration of colors and forms that seems to vibrate with sensuous beauty. Luxuriant clumps of irises offer a dramatic contrast to the geometric patterns created by the angular, weatherworn, grayish brown bridge. The flat surface and sharp, crisp edges of the bridge are softened by the applications of tarashikomi (a technique in which colors are blended by applying one over another that is not yet dry). This pair of screens is regarded as one of the artist's greatest works. The composition is a boldly abstract rendering of one of the most popular episodes in the tenth-century literary classics, the Ise monogatari (The Tales of Ise), a series of poems on love and journeying, accompanied by brief textual notes. This episode tells of a young aristocrat who happens upon a place called Eight Bridges (Yatsuhashi), where a river branched into eight channels, each spanned by a bridge. Admiring the lush growth of irises, he composes a poem of five lines, each beginning with one syllable of the Japanese word for iris, which immortalized the association of the flower with the place. The poem expresses his longing for a loved one left behind in the capital:
I have a beloved wife,
Familar as the skirt
Of a well-worn robe,
And so this distant journeying
Fills my heart with grief.
Korin depicted this motif of irises in a marshland several times, with and without the bridge, and at least once with clear narrative elements that include human figures. His signature, on the right screen, contains the honorary title hokkyo, granted him by the court in 1701 and included in almost all of his major paintings. The calligraphic style of the signature and the round seals, reading masatoki, indicate that the screens must have been created during the last few years of the artist's life. From about 1704, Korin commuted between Kyoto and Edo, where he hoped to find affluent patrons. Disappointed by a lack of success in the younger city, he returned home early in 1709; in 1711, he settled down and built a new house in Kyoto. These screens are thought to date to this period.