Images of Edo: Korin’s Irises and Hiroshige’s Kuwana


Korin’s Irises


Hiroshige’s Kuwana

Both Irises (1701) by Ogata Korin and Kuwana (1834) by Ando Hiroshige are landscape images produced during the Edo Period that utilize bright colors and similar themes of yamato-e and ukiyo-e. Irises, made from color and gold leaf on a paper six-panel wood screen, presents irises along an abstract body of water as a meditation on a scene from The Tales of Ise and exemplifies the Rinpa School of painting; Kuwana, a multi-color woodblock print, presents a boat docking at Kuwana Port with Kuwana Castle and the sea in the background, and illustrates ukiyo-e themes. I elected to choose these two images because I find them aesthetically attractive, both bright and colorful which I hold dear. Furthermore, I was interested in the way that Korin captured the spirit of the scene from Tales of Ise and the tension between narrative and landscape genres that it evokes. To me, ukiyo-e prints are some of the first kinds of Japanese art I was exposed to, so images like Kuwana are always of interest to me.


The subject of Irises are the flowers in and of themselves; the subject of Kuwana is the settlement the image takes its name from—Kuwana. In Irises, the figures of the flowers repeat until they become a pattern, evoking a mood that has been described as the poetic essence of an excerpt from The Tales of Ise by Ariwara no Narihira, part of the Japanese literary canon dating back to the 9th Century. In the scene, the protagonist is banished from his homeland and must cross a body of water—to do so, he created a poem that acted as a bridge across the water. The poem utilized the first syllables of the word kakitsubata (the Japanese name for one local type of iris) to begin each line, much like a Western acrostic poem. Echoing the narrative, the irises sprawl over the flat background of the screen, a sea of gold. The pattern effect emphasizes the collective more so than any individual iris; every piece has its place in the composition. Kuwana depicts a boat in the foreground, with Kuwana Castle taking up the right half of the middle ground and more boats receding into the horizon on the left half of the middle ground and background. The two ships in the foreground have just made the trip across the Bay of Ise and are staffed with sailors. Much like the irises function in Korin’s painting, the receding ships of Kuwana lead viewer’s eyes—in this case, into the horizon, creating depth rather than flattening the work. The artwork is a recollection of Hiroshige’s experience in Kuwana as he traveled from his home to Kyoto by ship—so it is rather different than a reference to a fictional occurance—the image is of a real landscape and comes from a series entitled, 53 Stations of the Tokaido.

Ogata Korin was brought up surrounded by artistic influence, though he has still been considered by many art historians as a kind of artistic outlier. Korin grew up as a member of the chonin, or merchant class. During the Edo Period, feudalism was coming to an end, and the chonin experienced much upward mobility in terms of wealth and social power. The merchant class quickly became the primary consumers of art as a commodity, so Korin surely had a hefty amount of exposure to fine arts as he was raised. Not only did his family consume art products, they also produced them: his family owned a textile shop. There, he developed understanding of design. After Korin’s father died, the family’s shop went under and Kano went on to make their own living through textile design. Later, he expanded his artistic abilities through training under artists like Kano. Korin developed his own style, though, and is accredited with creating his own school of painting, the Rinpa School—which literally means ‘the school of Rin.’

Irises exemplifies many of the stylistic hallmarks of the Rinpa School—among them, rhythmic patterns, use of bold colors and gold leafing, non-Western perspective, techniques like tarashikomi, literary references, and yamato-e themes. Figures are treated like patterns, similar to the  textiles Korin worked with from a young age. The irises are repeated rhythmically across the screen, green brushstrokes of the irises’ stalks leading viewers’ eyes along the composition to clump after clump of lavish indigo and light blue. The green and light blue is saturated and bright, especially when contrasted to the deep, dark, rich, adjacent indigo hue. The gold leading glows in the light, further emphasizing the color—perhaps a reference to earlier Heian period styles. The vibrant color on gold also collapses space and flattens the composition perspective-wise. There seems to be little if no depth to the image, a total lack of Western perspective. That is compounded on by use of techniques like tarashikomi, wet-on-wet ink technique, in which colors pool together to create a vibrant gradient, and mokkotsu, the boneless ink technique, in which no outlines are used to distinguish forms, colors lining up right next to one another.  Irises adheres to the yamato-e theme of persistent transience; irises only bloom once a year, seasons change, everything changes—in this way it relates back to the ukiyo-e prints like Kuwana.

Ando Hiroshige was one of Japan’s master print makers. He studied under a mentor, Toyohiro. His style can be noted for its interest in landscapes, combination of Eastern and Western perspective, use of bright color, and tight line work.  Hiroshige is most known for his landscape prints—53 Stations of the Tokaido was the series that lead to his fame, but throughout his printmaking career, ukiyo-e and bijinga themes also remained common. While one of the most famous printmakers in Japanese art history, Hiroshige offers elements of both Eastern and Western styles in his prints, most notable in his use of perspective. In Kuwana, the left-hand side of the print offers a much more Western perspective in which the left wall of the castle becomes smaller as it recedes into the distance toward the horizon—a clear departure from images with virtually no depth like Korin’s Irises. The right side of the print offers a flatter, more traditional Eastern perspective, in which the castle, the seafront below it, and the ship at dock seem to occupy the same level of space. Use of bright, saturated blues, reds, and yellows further collapses space—much like in Irises. The colors are used in opposition of one another to heighten the intensity, with a cool deep blue sea juxtaposed against a high-key red sky, boat, and dock. The castle pops yet anchors the scene, kept in cool monochromatic tones of lighter and darker gray. With a tight hand, Hiroshige creates complex patterns—the texture on the castle walls is a tight-knit mesh of hexagons made up of fine lines. It echoes the geometric pattern that the steps to the dock make on the right foreground.

            Since Irises was created on a six-panel folding screen, photographs of the work hardly do the artwork justice. Viewing the screen in real life would add much more depth to the experience of the viewer, since they would be able to see the subtle nuances in shadow and pattern that emerge in the third dimension. The folds in the screen would cause light to fall differently on the figures. The depth of the image would increase greatly, and there would be even more interplay between the individual irises. The gold would also pop more since light would fall onto the folding screen differently. Gold is also difficult to capture with a camera, whereas viewers in real life could appreciate the glimmering brilliance of the gold leaf, emphasizing the yamato-e mood of the work. Intended viewers were probably the wealthy patrons that supported the Rinpa school.

The creative process behind Irises was complex and contributed greatly to poignancy of the final product. The image was created on a six-panel paper folding screen. The background is gold leafing, and the irises are made from colored ink. To create the artwork, Korin first had to gently press the gold leafing onto the paper of the folding screen. After the gold background was applied, the artist painted ink onto the gold leafing—a tricky task, since the gold would not have absorbed the ink as readily as, say, paper would. The process is critical—the orderly, repetitive task echoes the meditative mood of the image, and the order in which materials were applied heightens the stylistic qualities of the artwork, as evidenced by the tarashikomi (wet-on-wet ink technique) in Korin’s painting, which comes through especially around the light and dark blue petals of the irises.

Kuwana is a woodblock polychrome print. To make the artwork, Hiroshige would have carved pieces of wood to create a sort of stamp that could be used to mass produce prints on paper. Different colors of ink would be used on each portion of the print, to achieve the polychrome effect. Brocade prints like this one were extremely cheap and quick to produce, meaning that the enlarging chonin class to consume and disseminate more artworks (or copies of artworks—but also, what’s the diff?) than ever before.  Experiencing the work in real life would be a much more personal experience, since the print would have probably come on a card that would fit in your hand.

Irises and Kuwana are both certainly products of Edo period Japan. Collapse of feudalism and the upward social movement of the merchant class is exactly what allowed the Rinpa school to flourish under the patronage of the middle class. Literary reference shows increase in literacy thanks to widespread circulation of prints like the Tales of Ise.  Kuwana falls under the aesthetic category of ukiyo-e prints, or ‘images of the floating world.’ Ukiyo-e embraces the idea that everything is transitory and ephemeral; it has Buddhist roots, but later in the Edo Period transforms into a fashionable aesthetic which adhered to the thought that one should enjoy the sensory beauties in life because they will not last and neither will you. Most of the images focused on forms of pleasure, set in the Pleasure Quarters of Edo/Tokyo, with beautiful women and theatre performers as common subjects. Most of the images were consumed by the upper-class chonin or samurai. Ukiyo-e is the epitome of Edo aesthetics, and a fantastic symbol for Edo Period Japan in general. It was also in the Edo period when travel skyrocketed (thanks to changing sociopolitical conditions like the dissolution of feudalism) that allowed for merchant-class mobility, both social and geographical.

Both Irises by Ogata Korin and Kuwana by Ando Hiroshige illustrate Edo period principles like a fascination with literature, and ukiyo-e and yamatoe themes. The pair are both landscapes that utilize bright color, and both utilize style techniques originating in the periods before the ones of their creation. The artworks utilize two very different media and therefore were created with extremely different techniques, though the artists did have similar audiences. Prints like Kuwana were undoubtedly circulated more than images printed on screens, but both artworks have maintained a prominent place in Japanese art history. They offer precious insights to Japanese culture—for example, I got to learn about The Tales of Ise, a poem from the 800s that I would not have investigated without a popular visual reference. Furthermore, I learned about changing social structures in Edo Japan and complex ideas like ukiyo-e. The images also offer tastes of Japanese artistry that differ greatly from widespread views that westerners have.


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