by Roderick Conway Morris

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Honolulu Academy of Art
Shono: Driving Rain, from Fifty-three Stations on the Tokaido Highway by Hiroshige, 1833-34

A fantastical melding of life, land and sea

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 23 April 2009


Having long languished in obscurity, Utagawa Hiroshige suddenly found himself Japan's most popular artist. He was in his mid thirties and still struggling to find publishers for his prints when he produced his 'Fifty-three Stations on the Tokaido Highway'. It was a runaway success, the most sought-after scenes being printed so frequently that the original woodblocks wore out.

This was not the first time that 'ukiyo-e' (floating world) artists had tackled this theme. The great Hokusai (who was 37 years older than Hiroshige) had done a series inspired by the principal coastal road linking Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto some 20 years before. But there was something about Hiroshige's felicitous blending of land- and seascapes, his masterful renderings of rain, mist and snow, and of the diverse human activity along the historic highway that siezed the public imagination.

Hiroshige and his world, his special qualities as an artist and the variety of his output are now the subject of an enthralling exhibition, 'Hiroshige: Master of Nature', curated by Gian Carlo Calza. Over 200 prints have been loaned by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which thanks to major bequests and acquisitions of collections, including those of James A. Michener and Robert F. Lange, has one of the most extensive holdings of ukiyo-e material. (Of the Academy's 10,000 Japanese prints, 4,000 are already available on the internet and the remainder will soon follow.)

Photographs for a revealing section on Hiroshige's influence on early Japanese photography are on loan from the Japan Camera Industry Institute (JCII) in Tokyo.

Cesare Mari's stylish and entertaining design, with the help of a Japanese garden, a wooden bridge, paper screens, bamboo and banners, has transformed the Fondazione Roma Museum for the occasion into a corner of Old Japan. The show continues here until June 7, then transfers to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (July 1 - September 10).

Unlike Hokusai, who was a commoner, Hiroshige was born (in 1797) into Samurai family, but a low-ranking one. Only a small proportion of Samurai were of independent means, many taking up arts and crafts to support themselves, such as making umbrellas, fans, lanterns, lacquer, or breeding rare birds, decorative fish and plants.

Painting, caligraphy and poetry were standard elements in a Samurai's education, but Hiroshige determined to become a professional artist (many of the verses on his works are apparently his own compositons). He first studied classical painting but then found an apprenticeship in around 1810-11 in the ukiyo-e milieu with Utagawa Toyohiro. Hiroshige's early efforts at the typical subjects of fashionable beauties, courtesans, Kabuki actors and the life of the Yoshiwara pleasure district failed to distinguish him from the many other hopefuls in this city of over a million.

However, at this time Hokusai was revolutionizing Japanese landscape painting with his 'Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji', which began publication in 1830. This seems to have been a factor in pushing Hiroshige in the direction of his true vocation, and his own series 'Famous Places in the Eastern Capital' (that is Edo) in the following year brought him some recognition within the art world.

According to tradition, in 1832 Hiroshige joined the annual delegation from the Shogun in Edo that traveled down the Tokaido road to present prize horses to the Emperor in Kyoto, his observations and sketches on the journey providing the raw material for 'Fifty-three Stations on the Tokaido Highway'. He certainly appears to have covered part of the route at some time, his knowledge of the landscapes and places closer to Edo being seemingly more first hand.

But there can be no question that he, along with other artists, referred to the many manuals, guidebooks and gazetteers then coming out. There is evidence for this in his bird's eye views of places, common in these illustrated books - although he put this convention to far more inventive and subtle use.

The 1830s proved an extraordinarily intense and productive period for Hiroshige. The 1833 edition of Hokusai's 'Thirty-six View of Mt. Fuji' now contained 46 sheets (even if the title remained unchanged) and the competition between the two artists spurred both of them on to greater things. Hiroshige not only produced numerous further views of Edo and landscapes elsewhere but also images of flowers, birds, trees, fish, waterfalls and other pictures of nature, coming virtually to dominate the market in these genres.

Towards the end of the decade Hiroshige took over the 'Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido' from his fellow ukiyo-e artist Keisai Eisen. The Kisokaido, also known as the Nakasendo (Inner Road), was the longer inland route from Edo to Kyoto, which wound through the mountainous Kiso river valley. Hiroshige added to Eisen's 24 prints 47 of his own to complete the series, among them some of his most memorable images, such as the hauntingly elegiac moonlit 'Seba' river view and the famous 'Oi' snow scene (both on show here).

In the later editions, all the sheets appeared under Hiroshige's signature, but those of Eisen gave greater prominence to human figures, Hiroshige's being characterized by his trademark deftness at integrating figures and landscapes. But his less well-trodden highway contained fewer 'meisho', or famous places (the identification and visiting of which was, and is, an abiding Japanese passion), and this series never matched the sales of the 'Tokaido Highway' prints. Nonetheless, Hiroshige's images contributed to the growing appreciation of the landscapes and places along the Kisokaido.

Hiroshige retained undimmed his energy and powers right up to his death in 1858. His 'One Hundred Views of Edo', printed between 1856-58, with its 120 sheets was the largest ukiyo-e series ever executed. It contains many celebrated images, sometimes distinguished by his surreal and eye-catching device of placing in the foreground an outsized element of the composition, such as a close-up of a predatory eagle swooping over a snowy landscape, a giant lantern half obscuring the sky in a temple view, or an enormous kite in the shape of a carp rising on the wind to allow us to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji in the far distance, even giving pride of place in a river scene to the hairy legs and arms of a boatman (with the rest of his body out of the frame). This series also included two images - 'Sudden Shower over Ohashi Bridge' and 'Kameido: The Plum Estate', reverentially copied by Van Gogh and now known the world over.

The exhibition closes with three wonderful late triptychs - 'View of the Naruta Whirlpools', 'Night View of Kanazawa', 'Mountains and Rivers on the Kiso' - from his 1857 'Snow, Moon' Flowers' series. It is doubtful if Hiroshige visited any of these wildly pictureque places. But they perfectly illustrate his genius for harmonizing fantasy and reality.

(A shorter version of this article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune.)

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024