The artistic zeitgeist of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868)—a time characterized by several centuries of social and political stability maintained by the repressive, isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate—was influenced heavily by the visual culture of the merchant and military classes in metropolitan centers. Sharing a goal to pursue the ephemeral pleasures of life, often through excessive expenditure, their patronage of the arts and popular entertainment espoused an aesthetic renaissance in the metaphysical space they occupied known as ukiyo, or the “floating world”.
Arguably, no other artist better captured the energy of this new cultural flowering than the famed Ogata Korin (1658-1716). Coming from an affluent merchant family and dabbling in a number of art forms in his youth, he amalgamated the traditions of scholastic painting with elements of popular design to create an unprecedented visual vocabulary that has continued to influence Japanese art to this day.
Even if readers have not seen the art of Korin in person, his designs are likely hauntingly familiar as the most famous among them, such as his graphic renderings of water irises, were widely emulated in the works of his contemporaries and followers (individuals art historically aggregated into the “school” of Korin) and are now nearly ubiquitously present in traditional Japanese design. In Ogata Korin: Art in Early Modern Japan, Frank Feltens delves into the prolific career of the eponymous artist while consistently posing the question: how was Korin’s work such a departure from his contemporaries, and why has it captured people’s imaginations for generations?
The most obvious answer is that, like today, people were instinctively drawn to the characteristically dynamic compositions, distinctively graphic renderings of nature and people, and undeniable kinetic energy. This is supported by a staggering number of premodern sources, a particularly evocative quote from scholar Kameda Bosai (1752-1826) gushing:
[Korin] brought forth fresh forms. He painted from life and captured their spirit, revealing the nature [of things] under his brush. His insects and flowers on paper are infused with feelings, and his paintings’ character is extraordinary, [their] vigor and appeal are distinct and brilliant. As such, he stood out in his time and was claimed to be divine and untrammeled.
However, while Feltens certainly discusses the vibrant superficial appeal of Korin’s work and accompanies testimonies like the one above with detailed descriptions and lush photographs, he more often turns his focus to the ways in which specific events in Korin’s life precipitated his professional ascent and legacy. To the same end, he makes an effort to shed light on Korin’s unique appeal among consumers across all social classes as an individual who drew from a wide variety of aesthetic influences, be it scholastic or from the floating world.
Although Ogata Korin: Art in Early Modern Japan could be considered a catalog given the number and breadth of images that are included, Feltens ultimately chooses to embed his own thoughts and theories in a carefully crafted biography, setting it apart from other publications about Korin or artists who emulated his work. Methodologically, therefore, Korin’s art is usually treated as a means of shedding light on gaps in the timeline of his life (the inverse of most traditional art historical publications, in which life events are brought up to reframe the artist’s aesthetic or technical approach to a given piece or body of work).
The early chapters build out Korin’s world and upbringing. Feltens delves into how his recognizable, signature style was informed by early training with a member of the Kano school (which looked to Chinese styles of painting for inspiration) and his observations of Edo period society from the vantage point of a textile merchant’s son. Feltens revisits these artistic foundations often throughout the book, especially when discussing Korin’s appeal to patrons and his aesthetic development over time. Interestingly, in the same section, Feltens takes into account Korin’s other youthful interests as well when considering his design sensibilities, such as his participation in Noh theater and his relationship with family members who also worked as designers.
From this point onwards, the chapters are broken down loosely by Korin’s dominant artistic or personal influences at a given point in his life without remaining rigorously chronological. For example, the chapter “Art and Family: Korin’s Lacquer Works and Hon’ami Koetsu” is not dedicated to every piece of lacquerware produced over the course of his career; Feltens instead uses the artform as a framing device to discuss how his connections to another famous designer (Koetsu, who was famous for working in this medium) impacted his early professional and artistic development. It also acts as a springboard for Feltens to introduce his business acumen in urban centers—in this chapter demonstrated by his using templates for people to choose from when commissioning lacquerware instead of creating bespoke designs—which plays a role in his successes discussed later in the book.
A particularly fascinating topic discussed in the book, and one of Feltens’ greatest contributions to the broader field of Rinpa design history, is how Korin’s public presence, afterlife and influence was enhanced by the inception of print culture and mass production in the Edo period. Given the graphic qualities of his designs, they were easily adapted into Korin moyo (abbreviations of original designs by Korin) and used in contemporary fast fashions, accessories, ceramics, etc. Within his lifetime, this dynamic meant additional channels of distribution and a certain level of celebrity and high demand. Entering the public consciousness this way also cemented his legacy after his death, and illuminates how and why his designs still have such a distinct presence in Japanese aesthetics and material culture.
Another seminal contribution is Feltens’ extensive research using the Konishi Family Archive, first assembled by one of Korin’s illegitimate children and containing many of his personal documents, sketches, and letters. While it has been an important source for Korin researchers from the 19th century, Feltens provides a number of English translations of primary sources that are an invaluable resource for future researchers and cements Ogata Korin: Art in Early Modern Japan as an important moment in art historical scholarship.
Given the intrigue of Korin’s life—his story is full of lovers, illegitimate children, squandered inheritance, and patrons from the highest and lowest within the Japanese traditional social order—the book already has a compelling, at times scandalous, and highly readable “plot”. It is a fascinating, beautifully organized, well-illustrated look into the life of one of Japan’s National Treasures. Reading as a love letter to the artist, it is undoubtedly a celebration of the impact that this widely admired figure has had on art in the four centuries since he lived.