Nibei Foundation / Japan Study Club
Ms. Meher McArthur, Asian art curator, author and educator, gave a most interesting and informative lecture on the famous Japanese ukiyoe block print artist Utagawa Hiroshige.
She was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Scotland, Canada and England. She studied Japanese at Cambridge University, lived two years in Japan and later earned a MA in Japanese Art at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
From 1998 to 2006, she served as Pacific Asia Museum’s Curator of East Asian Art. Her talk revolved around Hiroshige’s role in the development and appreciation of woodblock prints through the images of the artist’s works that are presently showing at the Norton Simon Museum’s collection called Visions of Japan. This collection of works had previously been owned by Frank Lloyd Wright. This exhibit opened in June of this year and will continue until January of next year.
Hiroshige was quite a prolific artist. He created from 4,000 to 4,500 wood block prints. One-half were landscapes; 1000 were of Edo; 800 of the Tokaido; and 800 other views from other areas of Japan. He could definitely then be considered one of the great artists of the printed landscape. He is very well-known for his most beautiful and historic 100 Famous Views of Edo.
The whole process of woodblock printing is a most interesting and time-intensive artistic procedure. The first step is for the artist to create his composition. This original drawing is then transferred to a woodblock. The woodblock carver then turns this into a “key block.” After this initial block is carved, a separate block is then made; one for each additional color. In this manner, step by step, the whole print is eventually completed. Therefore, in the exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum, Hiroshige did not actually touch any of the actual prints on display. He was the original artist, but he did not physically make the block print; it is a product of a team-work effort.
Hiroshige’s landscape prints were not merely pictures of landscape; natural elements like climate and seasons as they imposed themselves on the human element were also stressed. Therefore, while depicting a natural landscape, cultural insights could be drawn from looking at the people as they interact within their individual environments.
For example, he would depict a common traveler struggling against difficult climatic and other physical hardships. In his compositions he used not only traditional Japanese techniques, but his own unique ones as the use of incorporating diagonal lines to show the intensity of rain. His works, therefore, were not merely depictions of a physical scene, but also ones to create a mood, a feeling and an emotion. From such intense lines, the observer gets a sense of panic that the character in the picture would feel being caught in such a situation as a heavy rainstorm.
Hiroshige’s exact date of birth is not known, but is thought to be around 1797. He was born into a family of low-ranking samurai. His father was a fireman in the Marunouchi district. He lost both of his parents at the age of 13 and then took his father’s post as fireman. Though he was diligent at his post of fireman, this job still allowed him ample time to devote to his study of art. He then tried to enter a well-known art school, but failed to be accepted, but he was accepted as s student of Utagawa Toyohiro.
His early ukiyoe compositions centered around “bijin” or beautiful women; especially those connected with the pleasure quarters. He also worked on his landscape block prints.
At around the age of fifteen, he took the name Utagawa Hiroshige; this was a combination of the school name Utagawa and his master’s name. His art was incorporated into a novel at that time, but was not a successful adventure.
By 1830, he had lost his teacher and a publisher; yet this gave him the freedom to be artistically independent. He began to focus his work in two artistic composition genres; bird and flower, which had its roots in Chinese art, and landscape. Ms. McArthur concentrated her lecture on Hiroshige’s landscapes.
In 1830, when Hiroshige was in his early 30s, he created his Views of the Eastern Capital. Unfortunately, this first series was not successful; in large part due to the fact that the publisher attempted to sell the prints in areas where there was little foot traffic. The second series proved successful as it was displayed in a better location that was popular with tourists.
Some background of ukiyoe is necessary to further understand Hiroshige’s work. From the beginning of ukiyo-e in the 1620s, landscape was not the dominant artistic composition element. The blocks-printed books and sheets were generally of beautiful women with provocative and enticing long necks; especially those associated with the pleasure quarters and of Kabuki actors. Therefore, as far as the composition of these works was concerned, the actual character in the block print was of primary importance; the landscape or view was secondary, especially in the works for Torii Kiyonaga in the late 18th century.
It took around 200 years for landscape to become truly popular. It was in the early 19th century where the selling of landscape print became popular. Part of this new trend could be attributed to the fact that the government began putting restrictions on the subject matter of the art, especially the characters of the pleasure quarters.
Due to these artistic restrictions on ukiyoe prints, publishers began looking for other images for their block prints. Also, the Edo population in general was changing and they were now more interested in other areas beyond Kabuki actors and women of the tea houses. In the early 1800s, poets would also visit famous sites and some of these poets would commission block print artists to illustrate their work.
Katsushika Hokusai, a most famous block print artist and predecessor to Hiroshige, was famous for his prints that illustrated such poetry. In 1829, he was very interested in the natural landscape. When Hokusai was 69, he was commissioned to create the highly successful 36 Views of Mt. Fuji. Hiroshige was much influenced by Hokusai and was 40 years his junior. Hiroshige, who lived until 1858, was therefore able to produce many, many beautiful prints during his lifetime.
Hiroshige also began to concentrate on landscape prints. He began to put his prints in the oban or horizontal framing tradition; the dimensions were 10”X18.” Mountains may have seemed to have been a central focus, as they were definitely an integral part of the composition, but other factors such as man and the physical elements he fought against played a most important role in the composition as a whole.
For example, the composition shown may be of a traveler going down a mountain path, but one also sees the main character’s struggle with such elements as rough and difficult terrain in weather conditions that would make such travel a burdensome adventure. Therefore, Hiroshige was interested not in just depicting a physical scene, but the emotions that the character in the block print must have been feeling at the time.
Adding to these elements of composition, he was also brilliant in the artistic treatment of line in art to evoke such emotions. For example, he would use strong straight horizontal lines to depict a torrential rainfall. Sometimes lines were used in a lighter, more playful manner, such as a man losing his hat in a gust wind that was Hokusai.
Also, his background in European art could be seen in his use of perspective. He used the Western style of perspective from the Dutch and other European artists. Many of his compositions showed this knowledge of Western art perspective as he incorporated it in many of his prints. Another Western art technique he used was that of “framing” his pictures. This technique was very popular in Western art. Another artistic element Hiroshige used was his own his personal lyrical poetic approach of landscape. This could be seen in such scenes as geese flying over water that gave the viewer a sense of a “gentle” evening mood.
Another interesting element of Hiroshige’s composition was that his landscapes were not actual copies of physical reality; but merely his “representation” of reality. For example, he would “move” a mountain or an object wherever he felt was best to achieve his artistic endeavor. “Poetic license” of a sort was also taken in the area of “time.” For example he would depict a winter scene in a print where he had never been to that location at that particular time of the year. Therefore, for him, being faithful to physical reality was not as important as being able to create a “feeling” of a place. The art form played precedence over the physical existence in reality.
Another interesting technique Hiroshige used was the use of perspective as seen by one of the “characters” in the composition. For example, in one of Hiroshige’s block prints, a cat is seen sitting on a windowsill of a brothel house looking out into the town. The cat is now bored with whatever activity that had just taken place in the past, and is looking down upon the town from his windowsill.
In this scene, a hairpin is seen in the shape of a rake; a rake may symbolize “money making” as “raking in” money. A towel and a bowl are also seen, hinting at erotic activity. This cat who is now sitting on the sill now “connects” the “inside” activities with the “outside” activities. The end result is an emotional connection between the art and the art observer. Hiroshige was a master at evoking such emotional responses from the viewer of his works.
Using his own unique blend of both Japanese and Western artistic techniques, he produced wood block prints that evoked strong emotions from those that viewed his work. Hardships of man, as well as the whimsy side of life are often displayed. For example, in one of his block prints, a craftsman on a roof is seen dropping some tool of his on the roof.
An interesting artistic technique that Hiroshige used was called “bokashi” where he graduated colors to create more subdued tones of a color. For example he used this method in blue that progressively got lighter to create a moonlight reflection on a bay. This technique can also be seen in the use of red colors to show “wispy” clouds or a sunset.
His political views could also be seen in some of his compositions. For example, in the bottom left corner of one of his prints, there is a sign post indicating that one is now entering Edo. This sign post is a “check point” for the traveler of this time that needed to be “checked” by the shogun government. This had strong political significance in regards to the Tokaido route which connected the two capitals of Edo and Kyoto.
Hiroshige also had been asked to make such a first trip to Kyoto with a representative of the shogun to deliver a gift from the shogun to the emperor 300 miles away. This was the most heavily traveled and fastest route to Kyoto during that time. This route therefore had a major political and historical significance.
From 1600 to 1868, 250 feudal lords were requested to spend alternate years in Edo and their home provinces. During the years that the lords spent in Edo, they were not allowed to bring their wife and children with them. This was a highly effective method to insure the feudal lords’ allegiance to the shogun and to guarantee the shogun’s power and authority over the individual lords. This tradition helped guarantee some 250 years of peace in Japan.
Ms McArthur treated the audience to a most informative and enjoyable evening learning about some of Utagawa Hiroshige’s most famous and beautiful landscape block prints.