Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms


Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan)

Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan)

A landscape transformed

In Red and White Plum Blossoms, Ogata Kōrin transforms a very simple landscape theme—two flowering trees on either side of a brook—into a dream vision. Executed in black ink and blotchy washes of gem-like mineral color on a pair of folding screens, the image seems both abstract and realistic at the same time. Its background, a subtle grid of gold leaf, denies any sense of place or time and imbues everything with an ethereal glow. The stream’s swelling metallic curls and spirals are a make-believe of flowing water, and its sharply tapered serpentine contour lines angle the picture plane in an unnatural upward tilt. The trunks of the trees are nothing more than pools of mottled color without so much as an outline. These forms and spaces appear flat to the eye. Yet the artist’s intimate knowledge of how a plum tree grows can be seen in their writhing forms and tangle of shoots and branches. 
Left: Right half (detail), Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan); Right: Red blossoms (detail), Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan)

Left: Right half (detail), Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan); Right: Red blossoms (detail), Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan)

Enveloping us in spring

In planning its imagery, Kōrin closely considered the function of the folding screen within the traditional Japanese interior. The two sections would have been positioned separately yet near enough to each other to define an enclosed space. At 156 cm (or approximately 67 inches) in height, they towered over the average Japanese person of the day. Kōrin depicted only the lower parts of the trees, as if viewed from very near: the tree with red blossoms thrusts upward from the ground and out of sight; the white pushes leftward out of view and then, two slender branches appear to spring back diagonally downward from the top corner and jab upward. With each screen standing hinged at its central fold, a viewer experiences these exaggerated two-dimensional images in three dimensions. Stopping us in our tracks by confounding logic with this combination of pure design and intimate naturalism, Kōrin envelops us in the pulsing vitality of early spring.
Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan; photo: mxmstryo, CC BY 2.0)

Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan; photo: mxmstryo, CC BY 2.0)

Rinpa, or “School of Kōrin”

An acknowledged masterpiece painted toward the end of his life, Red and White Plum Blossoms exemplifies a style that for many epitomizes Japanese art. It has profoundly impacted modernism in the West, most famously in the work of Gustav Klimt. Since the 19th century, this combination of abstraction and naturalism, monumental presence, dynamism and gorgeous sensuality has commonly been referred to as Rinpa, or “School of Kōrin.” But Kōrin neither originated this aesthetic, nor presided over a formal school. More accurately, he stood at the forefront of a loose movement of like-minded artists and designers in various media. Rinpa first appeared a century earlier, in the brilliant relationship of a gifted calligrapher, connoisseur, and intellectual named Hon’ami Kōetsu, and an equally gifted painter of fans and screens, Tawaraya Sōtatsu, who created works that aimed to satisfy the luxurious tastes of 17th-century Kyoto’s aristocrats and wealthy merchants. 
Tawaraya Sōtatsu, Waves at Matsushima, c. 1600–40, right side of a pair of six-panel folding screens, ink, color, gold, and silver on paper (National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.)

Tawaraya Sōtatsu, Waves at Matsushima, c. 1600–40, right side of a pair of six-panel folding screens, ink, color, gold, and silver on paper (National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.)

Entranced by a few of Sōtatsu’s paintings that he saw in the collection of a patron, Kōrin taught himself the techniques: images pared to bare essentials and then dramatically magnified, emphasis on the interplay of forms, colors, and textures, and unconventional adaptations of ink painting methods. These methods included tarashikomi, or dilute washes of color blended while very wet, and mokkotsu, or “bonelessness,” which creates forms without exterior outlines. Some scholars now use terms such as Sōtatsu-Kōrinha, Kōetsuha, and Kōetsu-Kōrinha rather than Rinpa, in recognition of its actual origins. Yet Kōrin is owed a great debt as the one who revived a dazzling creative approach from obscurity and whose vibrant works firmly established his own reputation.
White blossoms (detail), Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan)

White blossoms (detail), Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms, Edo period, 18th century, pair of two-fold screens, color and gold leaf on paper, 156 x 172.2 cm each, National Treasure (MOA Museum, Atami, Japan)

A profligate who squandered his family’s enormous wealth, Kōrin benefitted from the wide design experience afforded by its position as one of Kyoto’s most distinguished producers and purveyors of fine textiles. This he combined with painting studies in one of Japan’s preeminent studios. His numerous works in this sophisticated style thus encompass many media, formats, and subjects—paintings in color and ink on large screens, small albums, fans, hanging and hand scrolls, printed books, lacquers, ceramics, and even textiles.

Initially inspired by Japanese classical literature, the Rinpa movement’s attention soon extended to themes from nature, including Chinese motifs that may have influenced Kōrin’s choice of plum trees for this painting. Looking now at the impact of his work from over three centuries ago, it seems incredible that a vision so dramatic, luxurious, and radical could ever have fallen into obscurity.


Additional resources

Video from MOA Museum of Art with details images.

Learn more about this painting in a Reframing Art History chapter—“The four seasons in the arts of Japan.”

Rinpa Painting Style on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Edo-period Japanese painting at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Cite this page as: Dr. Hannah Sigur, "Ogata Kōrin, Red and White Plum Blossoms," in Smarthistory, January 21, 2016, accessed December 10, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/ogata-korin-red-and-white-plum-blossoms/.