top of page

Ogata Korin and Me

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Welcome to my first blog post! The aim of this blog is to share with you my academic interest in Japanese and Chinese art history combined with my own artistic practices incorporating traditional East Asian elements. So, without further ado, here goes!

Many of you reading this might know about my 36 Views of the BT Tower and that it was inspired by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and his series ‘36 Views of Mt Fuji’, but recently I’ve become fascinated by another artist: Ogata Korin (1658-1716).

Ogata Korin, ‘Irises’ left screen, 18th century, Nezu Art Museum

Ogata Korin is considered one of the founders of the Rinpa school (the rin of Korin lending the Rin in Rinpa). School here also doesn’t refer to a literal academy, but rather a loose association of artists with shared aesthetic ideals: in this case, the Rinpa style refers usually to a lavish use of gold leaf and stylised decorative elements relating to nature and poetry. Perhaps the best example is Ogata Korin’s screen of irises, which was created with the help of a stencil.

There are two main things that fascinate me most about Korin. First, like me, he began his official artistic career in his 30s. For an artist, this is late and especially so in Korin’s day, when would-be artists had to apprentice to another master, usually in their teens. Korin came from a wealthy and cultured family from Kyoto. His family were textile merchants and made a comfortable living serving aristocratic ladies. A considerably large inheritance allowed Korin a leisurely life until he spent most of it and lent money to untrustworthy Daimyo lords who defaulted on their debts. It was this economic need that forced him to decide to become a professional artist. Before that, he was something of an amateur Noh actor. That he was able to achieve such artistic heights despite a relatively late start is particularly inspiring to me.

Ogata Korin, ‘Eight Bridges’ Lacquer writing box, 18th century, Tokyo National Museum

The second thing that fascinates me about Korin is his remarkable business acumen. It’s not true that artists aren’t good businessmen. Korin became an artist late in life primarily because he had to earn money, with the skills he had, to support himself. Another one of his creations that is now a national treasure is this lacquer box, ‘Writing Box with Eight Bridges’. Korin did not actually create the lacquer box himself. How could he? He didn’t have the skills in lacquer craft. Rather, he collaborated with a craftsman who made the box, which he designed and sold to clients using his ‘brand’. In this sense, he was not unlike Jeff Koons with a team of people working for him. Korin had a book of designs which clients could pick and choose what they want.

Tofu bijo hinakata (Kōrin cloud water), 1727. Woodblock print on paper. Tokyo National Museum

We today, have the Romantic notion of an artist creating his or her work entirely by themselves, directly expressing what’s in their heart and soul alone. But for most of history, whether it is a studio in Renaissance Italy, or in Edo period Japan, artists collaborated with others simply to be in the business of making pictures or works of art for sale. For example, Hokusai didn’t create that print of the Great Wave alone that you admire: he designed it, but another carved it, another printed it, and another sold it. Artists then as now, are like film directors, they might not be able to do every single thing (cameramen, sound, screenplay, editing etc) but they have a vision and direct the overall product.

For more information about Ogata Korin, I highly recommend Frank Felten’s new book, ‘Ogata Korin: Art in Early Modern Japan’.

Ogata Korin, ‘Red and White Plum Blossoms’, 18th century, MOA Museum of Art



bottom of page