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Noh Performance and Ogata Korin's Painting

Noh perfomance, 'Wisteria' at Kings place, London

I recently had the opportunity to see Noh being performed in London. Noh is one of the oldest continous forms of theatre in the world dating back to the 14th century in Japan. It was difficult to understand, but haunting and profound. At times it felt less like theatre and more like a séance to communicate with the dead. It may seem irrelevant to discuss Noh here, but it was a major influence on one of my favourite artists Ogata Korin. Before he became a painter in his late thirties, Ogata Korin was mainly interested in Noh acting. I therefore wanted to explore a bit here the relationship between Korin and Noh.

Edward Luper, sketch of Noh performance in London

Between 1675 and 1701, Korin watched or partook in twenty-four recorded Noh performances. Continuing his engagement with theatre, from 1701 to 1704, Korin painted a number of works with immediate connections to Noh, attesting to his artistic engagement with drama.

Edward Luper, sketch of Hanya

For example, connections to Noh have been identified for works like Cormorant Fisher and Hakurakuten, which both refer directly to specific plays. During his late teens, Korin received extensive training in Noh, as evidenced by his many notes on specific plays, costumes, and evocative moods. Knowledge of such intricate aspects showcases Korin's deep appreciation and advanced level in this medieval form of Japanese theater.

Highly educated from a young age, erudite painters like Korin produced their works within a shared framework of personal knowledge and cultural expectations, whose levels of accessibility varied with each audience. As a result, works of art like Irises and Irises at Yatsuhashi might consist of different strata of conspicuous and concealed meaning. One of the most overt associations of the pairs of screens lies in their depiction of a specific literary site (meisho): the irises along the eight-plank bridge in the eastern province of Mikawa. The Tales of Ise and other classical narratives established poetic locales that existed largely in the mind and acted as fictional stimuli for imagination.

Edward Luper, sketch of Noh performance

The Noh theatre, which drew heavily from classical literature, served an extended similar role of giving shape to fictional places and events. The same is true for Noh plays focusing on the Tales of Ise. One such play is Kakitsubata, literally "irises," which takes Ariwara Narihira's encounter with the eight-plank bridge and irises as its theme. Probably written by the late medieval playwright Konparu Zenchiku (1405-before 1471), the play tells of a priest encountering a young woman who identifies herself as the spirit of the irises, tied to this earth by her deep longing for a long-lost love, Narihira. Ultimately, by divine intervention, the spirit sheds herself of this passion and achieves enlightenment.' The narrative is a complex weave of literary and religious references. At the immediate centre, however, stands the imagined vista of the iris flowers that the play tirelessly emphasises throughout the plot and which form the subject of Korin's Irises and Irises at Yatsuhashi.

Ogata Korin, Irises screen

A similar thematic overlap between picture and Noh play occurs in other works by Korin, such as the Hakurakuten screens, a subject he also rendered as a fan painting. The play recounts the fictional visit of the famous Chinese poet Bai Juyi (772-846) to Japan in order to test the poetic ability of the Japanese. Setting out by boat from China and vowing to challenge the first Japanese he encounters in a match of poetry, Bai Juyi unwittingly confronts the Sumiyoshi Deity (Sumiyoshi Myojin), the god of poetry, who hurries to the rescue of the Japanese and defeats the Chinese poet. Korin's screens, depict the Sumiyoshi Deity floating on a raft offshore with Bai Juyi heading toward him, one of the key moments in the play.

Ogata Korin, 'Hakurakuten' screen. Bai Juyi is on the right encountering the God of Poetry on the left

I am personally a beginner in the world of Noh, but more than anything, I am drawn to the masks and the mask of Hanya in particular - the spirit of a lady whom jealousy has turned into a demon.

Noh performance, London

The Hanya mask has an open mouth, strong jaw, sharp teeth, golden eyes, and two horns. Its expression is simultaneously demonic, angry, frightening, tormented, and sorrowful. In fact, the more gold, a Noh mask has, the more demonic and less human it is. Noh masks seem to capture the emotions of humanity across all spectrums. I would like to incorporate this somehow into my own art someday.


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