‘Ogata Korin’: the libertine artist who made beauty his profession


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

First, the death of his father, a wealthy textile merchant with a network of personal and business ties to the Kyoto elite. Then there was an embarrassing trial of an old flame, the daughter of an influential trading family, with whom Korin had fathered a child. Although the matter was quickly settled, Korin was forced to hand over one of his properties and a large sum of money to support the education of his offspring.

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

If it had been an isolated incident, his fortunes could easily have been restored. But, as Frank Feltens, associate curator at the National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, writes in his recently published informative monograph “Ogata Korin: Art in Early Modern Japan,” Korin had a “penchant for s ‘engage in romantic relationships with uncertain (and sometimes unhappy) results. In the decade since his father’s death, Korin fathered at least three more children with three different wives. To make matters worse, he spent his money carelessly and was often in debt. By the mid-1690s, when he was not yet 30, he was practically bankrupt.

It changed the course of Japanese art. Until then, Korin had been a carefree libertine, a talented dilettante indifferent to the need to earn a living. Today, faced with financial ruin, he had no choice but to harness his considerable artistic talents – though hitherto largely neglected – to regain some stability. And so it was that over the next two decades, Korin not only managed to emerge from the financial abyss he had widened, but he also created some of the most influential works of art and most memorable in the country’s history.

But first, there were a few issues to be resolved. Initially, Korin had no professional training. He had not apprenticed or belonged to any of the major studios that dominated artistic production in Japan at the time, such as the Kano School, which was based in Edo (now Tokyo) and formed most of the painters employed by the Tokugawa. shogunate, or the Tosa school, which operated from Kyoto and drew much of its patronage from the imperial court and the old aristocracy.

Yet Korin was not starting from scratch. As a child, he had taken painting lessons, as part of the great artistic program that his father, a very cultured man, had set up for his three boys, also schooled in literature of the Heian period (794-1185) and classic. theater. As Feltens writes, it was an education based “on 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. At 18, he was already performing for members of the Kyoto nobility. This proved to be a boon for his future career: the theater was “a privileged place for the socialization of the beginnings of modernity”, explains Feltens, and noh became “Korin’s main conduit for attaching himself to the aristocracy. and to cultivate potential customers for the paintings ”. More importantly, it was through 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 order, in 1695.

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

From the moment he turned to art for a living, Korin wanted to appeal to a wide range of patrons to maximize his income. He painted, of course, initially mostly in small formats – on fans or tobacco pouches – but he also designed some stunning lacquer boxes. He later worked with his brother, Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), a famous ceramist, to produce a wide range of tableware.

Interestingly, Korin did not work directly with lacquer, nor did he mold and bake the items he designed with his brother. We know from his extensive archives, housed at the Kyoto National Museum, that his role was akin to that of an artistic director. He sketched out the patterns and defined the overall design, but he let other artisans do much of the actual work, simply overseeing the creation process.

The painting was different, however. Except towards the end of his life, when Korin was probably working with a small number of assistants, his pictorial output was his – and uniquely. He liked bright colors, often associated with golden or metallic pigments. He liked to repeat simple motifs – flowers for example – as a composer constantly returning to an enchanting melody.

And then there was his tarashikomi technique, the ink drop on the color recently applied, and therefore still wet. All of these elements are present in “Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges)”, one of his masterpieces, and his sister work, “Irises”, which is the collection of the Nezu Museum in the Minato district of Tokyo. Korin’s aesthetic became the essence of the Rinpa school, which bears his name and is now considered one of the most important artistic movements in pre-modern Japan. Not bad for a man who, a short time ago, was a hair’s breadth away from losing everything.

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