Irises

Irises in full bloom among sword-like leaves are the most iconic motif in the art of Rinpa. The motif originates in a poem from the Tales of Ise collection compiled in Japan in the Heian period (794-1185 CE). The poems and accompanying narrative explore nature, courtly society, love and relationships.

In chapter nine of these tales, a man heartbroken by an unattainable love for a higher-ranking lady leaves the capital and his wife for the eastern region. When he and his travelling companions reach Mikawa province, they come across a swamp with plank bridges laid in all directions among flowering irises. Moved by the beauty of the scene, he composes a poem, with the first letter of each of the five lines beginning with one of the five syllables of the Japanese word for iris: ka-ki-tsu-ba-ta. When the group hears the poem, they realise it expresses the man’s longing for the wife he left behind. This brings a melancholy mood to the travellers. In a humorous twist, the story ends when they discover that the dried rice they were carrying for food has become sodden with their tears.

Focus works

In the silk kimono by Takao Kenzō, plank bridges zigzag their way through the irises which bloom in May in the marshlands in Japan.

In the painting on a hanging scroll by Yamamoto Kōichi (displayed 22 June – 22 July), only a section of the bridge is included just below the sandpiper.

However, in his folding screens or byobu (displayed 25 July – 26 August), Kamisaka Sekka has done away with the plank bridges altogether. The poem and its myriad depictions in painting, textiles, fans and lacquer is so well known that including every detail is not required.

K-6 activities

  • Draw and paint some irises from observation. Reduce your drawings to simple outlines and trace your favourite one. Repeat your chosen simplified iris to create a zigzagging pattern across either a vertical or horizontal rectangle to represent a scroll or screen. Colour your design to create the mood of spring or summer.
  • Artists often make works of art that depict scenes and ideas from poetry and literature, sometimes inspired by the beauty of nature. What do you find beautiful in nature? Write your own poem or story about what you love then create an artwork inspired by it.

7-12 Visual Arts: issues for consideration

  • The kimono, hanging scroll and folding screen are crafted from different materials. How might the materials and function of each artwork dictate the overall composition? Consider the role that colour and space play in conveying the form of the flower.
  • Collect a variety of artworks that have been inspired by text. How do they interpret the meaning of the text visually? Develop a series of works of your own based on a poem or story.

Kamisaka Sekka Irises 1920-40, pair of two-fold screens: ink and colour on gold ground, 167.5 × 183 cm each, private collection, Kyoto