Iris Garden at Horikiri, 1852

This Japanese woodblock print is a triptych, which means that it is made of three separate sheets. Created by Utagawa Hiroshige it shows elegant sightseers admiring the flowers at the Horikiri Iris Garden.

What’s going on here?

The area around Horikiri village was renowned for hanashobu, a type of iris which was ideally suited to the swampy land. Hiroshige noted that so many lovely women came to view the irises that it was difficult to distinguish which were the real flowers.

Fashionable women are the main subject here; men are present, but hard to spot. Was Hiroshige hinting at something?

Let’s look at some of the traditional symbolism and remember that Japanese images and text are read from right to left.

Plant Life

Two types of plant dominate the picture: irises and pine trees. Due to their sword-shaped leaves, the iris symbolizes masculinity and the warrior spirit.

In Japanese culture pine trees symbolise a happy home. Twin pines (two pine trees together) often represent a happy marriage or domestic situation.

Ornamental Hair Pins

Known as kanzashi these hair pins may give clues about  the women.

Arrows and fans

One woman’s kanzashi has an embellished fan on one side and an arrow-like tip on the other. Arrows and fans were both considered to be lucky. Fans represent a life of culture and are associated with marriage.

She is holding a brush-pen, paper and what appears to be a portable ink well, all symbolic of a cultured individual. This lady has already picked a slim bunch of irises.

Crescent moon

The central figure has a crescent moon with a bird on her hairpins.

The moon has many layers of possible meanings. It could mean enlightenment or it could symbolize the passing of time or protection. The crescent moon was sometimes associated with a warrior’s bow.

Pineapple

The left-hand figure sports what looks to be a tasselled pineapple.

Pineapples are not native to Japan but were introduced to the country in the 1830s. In this context, it may symbolise luxury and wealth. She appears to be looking for something but has her back turned to the iris beds.

What does this all mean?

The symbolism points towards the elements of male and female, good luck, wealth and happiness. We don’t know for sure, but the women in this picture might not just be looking for good flowers to pick!

Author: Fiona Story, Creative Programme Officer

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