Twilight of summer and of an era

The ukiyo-em (translated as "pictures of the floating world") woodblock prints were developed during the period of Japan's isolation from outside influ ences mandated by the Tokugawa shogunate. These prints delighted a rising merchant class with the mirror they held up to reflect genre scenes of domestic life and craftsmen at work, portraits of actors and beautiful women, and land scapes of well-loved or famous views. Paradoxically, it was this popular, spe cifically Japanese and inward-looking art that was to have the greatest impact on Western artists and hence on Western culture.

Hiroshige is considered the last great ukiyo-em master. His gently lyrical landscapes with their exquisitely subtle coloring are usually the most immedi ately accessible to Western viewers. By his time, Japan could no longer be se questered. In 1856, the year which dates this print, the French etcher, Bracquemond, discovered the ukiyo-em album of Hokusai's "Manga" among the packing materials of a Japanese shipment of porcelain and the out-going process was begun. A few years later, Japan signed treaties of commerce which opened the country up to European and American trade, and the cultural climate changed almost at once into one which no longer had a demand for ukiyo- e.m Woodblock prints of high technical excellence continued to be cut and still are today, but the particular verve of the Floating World disappeared.

The "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo" series contains some of Hiroshige's finest work. These woodblock prints are a collaboration of artist, publisher, engraver and printer. When one considers that as many as ten sepa rate color blocks had to be cut and printed by hand for each design, one realizes how monumental the work of producing an album of one hundred varied scenes could be. Fortunately, the cost of this particular series was underwritten by an esthetic and wealthy priest. This meant that the publisher did not have to urge the craftsmen to quick production and that the artist could supervise each step with much more care than he was usually allowed.

Born and raised in Edo, now Tokyo, Hiroshige shows plainly in the scenes his love for his city, recording not only urban crowds and pleasures and nearby unspoiled wilderness but the varieties of weather, times of day, as well as the change of seasons. This pinpointing of a specific time of a certain kind of a day was one of the features of his landscapes which the French Impressionists so much admired. Here we have the twilight of a calm summer day. The last bit of a splendid sunset reddens the sky behind the tall pine trees, but the oncoming night has muted the rich blues of the water and roof tiles and the lush greens of the grass and trees. Vermilion doors on the near building and a couple of minute touches of lemon yellow glimpsed through the trees enliven the color scheme.

The lake-like body of water which imparts such a sense of tranquility is the moat of Edo Castle and is called Benkei-borim after a popular historical figure. The distinctive slope of the walls on the right which rise around the palace compound make that part of the scene as recognizable to the casual tourist today as it must have been to the Edoites of 1856. It is still a charming place for an afternoon stroll as the group of people in the left foreground seem to be doing. The houses of two noble families which spread across the background are gone but the area still retains the park-like feeling, removed from the crowds and bustle of the enormous city a short distance away.This is partly due to the fact that out of deference to the privacy of the Emperor and his family no tall buildings are built close by.

The print conveys the openness of the sky by a characteristic ukiyo-em device; the main light part of the sky is left uncolored, the dark blue of approaching night is indicated by the shaded indigo stripe across the top, the red of the sunset appears in broken areas behind the trees (and doesn't show up in the photo graph). The serene water is rippled by another printing device. This blue area was cut on a block with the woodgrain either left unfilled or even etched out so that, when printed, the design of the wood produced a watery effect. In this century, the Dadaists made use of this technique in a different context.

There are endless delights in any Hiroshige landscape. The composition goes back in a series of strongly-defined diagonal viewing lines which remind us that this particular series of prints were all vertical -- encouraging the artist to many a compositional tour-de-force. Designing a landscape is easier in a hori zontal frame. The wealth of precise but unobtrusive detail tells us much about the mode of life in Japan over a century ago. The two small tower-like struc tures in the right background are fire watch stations, made necessary by the highly flammable wood and paper construction of Japanese architecture and the use of charcoal, many times in open fire pits, for heating and cooking. Hiroshige, himself, came from a family of hereditary fire wardens and his early years were spent as a firefighter. Happily for us, he was able to pass his occupation on to a relative in time to devote himself to art and to produce an extraordinary number of fine prints. These have been collected ardently by art connoisseurs in Japan and over the world for many years. This points to another paradox in the history of ukiyo-em because these unpretentious but superb works of art were disdained at the time of their publication by the aristocratic art critics of Edo as being too plebian to be worthy of notice.

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