The two lines of script prominently written on the outermost panel of each of these screens (byobu) identify the author as Korin, one of the most renowned of all Edo period painters. Together with Tawaraya Sotatsu (died c. 1640) and Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743), Korin’s younger brother, he represents one of the stalwarts of the Rinpa school of later Japanese painting. While Korin enjoyed a privileged childhood in Kyoto, by his late thirties he was struggling on his own as a painter, following the bankruptcy of the family business.
As the signature on these byobu contain the honorary title Hokkyo (Bridge of the Buddhist Law), which was given to particularly talented artists in the Edo period, these screens are dated by some scholars after 1701, the year that title was officially introduced. (However, it had been in use much earlier.) Not long after, in 1704, Korin left Kyoto to attempt a career in Tokyo. He apparently expected strong backing from the collectors and patrons there but came away in 1709 to settle again in Kyoto. There he not only embarked on individual private commissions but also completed several noteworthy collaborative projects in various media with Kenzan. Especially remarkable were their combined efforts to produce stoneware ceramics with inventive painted designs that became prized utensils among connoisseurs of the tea culture.
These chrysanthemum byobu typify a painting genre that came to be identified with Korin and much less so with Kenzan or their talented follower Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828). Highly stylized backgrounds accentuate floral groupings that have been groomed so as to appear utterly artificial, like the synthetic arrangements available today. Korin’s genius derives in large measure from natural phenomena painstakingly observed and then manipulated to create compositions of startling refinement and sparkling isolation. This process may have grown out of Korin’s early immersion in the family textile business, a medium that encourages such dramatic distillations of form: the stream’s limpid patterns of gold-crested waves recall many traditional kimono robe designs of the era. Or perhaps Kenzan’s influence and his proclivity for producing astringent “arrangements” of perfectly intact flora set against blank or gold-foil backgrounds propelled an anonymous Korin follower. Either way, the demand for Korin’s work and for paintings in the Korin style (Rinpa) more so than that of any other school of the period is clear in the history of later Edo era painting.
Chrysanthemums appear alongside streams in early compositions by or attributed to Sosetsu as well as to Korin and his followers in a number of formats other than byobu: fans and painted designs on gold-foil wrapping papers for incense come to mind. This late summer/autumnal subject apparently became identified with Korin’s name, his workshop, and later followers, resulting in works such as this pair of byobu, one of the few brilliant large-scale compositions of the later Rinpa genre in Western collections. As yet, no other paintings currently ascribed to Korin have been identified with these inscriptions.
Credit Line: Text courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.