The Secrets of EDO


Irises By Ogata Kōrin

Pair of six-panel screens; ink and color on gold-foiled paper
Japan Edo period, 18th century, Nezu Museum

Reproduced with special permission from the Nezu Museum, Tokyo..

Irises By Ogata Kōrin

National Treasures Irises (left screen) by Ogata Kōrin – Ink and color on gold-foiled paper – 18th century, Edo Period, Japan [NEZU Museum, Tokyo]

The Japanese Blue Irises (Kakitsubata-zu in Japanese), a masterpiece by Ogata Kōrin from the Rinpa school, painted on a set of two six-panel screens (byōbu in Japanese) is recognized by the Japanese government as a National Treasure. The irises by Kōrin feature prominently on the five-thousand Japanese Yen bank notes.

The panels display the irises in full bloom, against the subdued dull golden backdrop in contrast to the flowers’ iridescence. The paintings are believed to be part of the illustration of one particular uta-monogatari (poem-tale, a style of writing poetry wherein prose is interspersed with poetry) titled: Ise monogatari (The Tales of Ise, Azuma Kundari chapter). In this poem the irises represent the fond memories of the lover Narihara (the protagonist in the Tales of Ise) in exile away from his beloved. Similar artistic traditions exist in India at the confluence of poetry and visual arts (e.g., renditions ofthe stories of the Ramayana, the first epic poem or the adi kavya (Sanskrit), as Kalighat patachitra (scroll paintings in Bengali, from Kalighat, Calcutta, India).

Irises have deep symbolic meaning, across disparate cultures, from the West to the East, and have inspired artists like Van Gogh, apart from the likes of Ogata Kōrin. Irises also represent the French royalty and spirit as the Fleur-de-Lis, and adorn the regional flag of Brussels. Further, irises appear in the motifs adorning the Rosette Palace (in Thailand) described in the Temple of Dawn (part of the tetralogy titled: The Sea of fertility (Hojo no Umi in Japanese)) by Yukio Mishima. In India, irises are found in the Khasi hills and parts of the North Eastern states (India’s Gateway to the East), and Kashmir.