Utagawa Hiroshige: Landscape woodcut prints
ＴＨＥ ＷＡＬＬ ＳＴＲＥＥＴ ＪＯＵＲＮＡＬ ２００８．９．１２
Japan's Edo period, from 1603 to 1868, was one of transition from feudalism to modernity, symbolized by the changing role of the samurai, Japan's medieval warrior caste. No one chronicled the latter stages of this period with such skill and subtlety as the painter and printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).
Born into a samurai family of minor government officials, Hiroshige became a master of the "ukiyo-e," or "pictures of the Floating World," woodcut prints depicting the sophisticated pleasures of pre-industrial Edo (then the name for Tokyo). This "Floating World" is a Japan of teahouses, geisha and Kabuki, but in Hiroshige's unique renderings, it is also a transcendent vision of everyday events and familiar landscapes -- a vision that would strongly influence European modernism only a few decades later.
Both Van Gogh, who owned around 400 Japanese prints, and Monet were followers -- at times, even imitators -- of Hiroshige. Twenty of Hiroshige's landscapes are on view in a beautiful exhibition at Berlin's Museum of Asian Art, "Hiroshige: Landscape Woodcut Prints."
In the early 1830s, the subject matter of Japanese woodcuts began to shift from geisha girls and Kabuki actors to famous sites in changing seasons. Hiroshige's older rival, Hokusai, had a great success with his series from the period, "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji." Hiroshige, after taking a journey from Edo to Kyoto in 1830, produced his own successful series a few years later called "Fifty Three Stations of the Takaido," several of which are on view in the Berlin show.
Unlike Hokusai, who used dramatic colors and exaggerated shapes, Hiroshige produced something like genre scenes set against delicate landscapes. In "Bridge over River Toyo," from his Tokaido Road series, a remote bridge, given minute detail to suggest its distance, is contrasted with a small group of indifferent workers hanging on a building scaffold. In another early work, "Evening Rain at Karasaki," a rainstorm is rendered in thickening straight lines, and the emptied garden is gray, black and white. In a later, mysterious work, called "Moon Cape" (1857), from his series "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," a teahouse illumined by lamps overlooks a bay made bright by a harvest moon. In the center are plates of an unfinished meal, and from the corner we can just make out two figures, probably geisha, who are falling asleep. The atmosphere is both Vermeer-like and Van Gogh-like -- a fading, ordinary moment, given one last burst of description.
—J. S. Marcus