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A snowy scene along a famous road

By Christopher Andreae / December 7, 2005



It was about 320 miles long. It took from 10 to 16 days to travel its length.

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Its name, the Tokaido, meant the East-Sea-Way, and it was one of five highways that led out of the government capital Edo (now Tokyo) to the Japanese provinces. The Tokaido was the most important, however, because it went to Kyoto,the imperial capital of Japan.

Ordinary people - from pilgrims to travelers - used the road despite its rough terrain and its lack of bridges. It was also used for princely processions and the transportation of goods. Along its route were 53 staging posts, and it was these posts that Utagawa Hiroshige celebrated in his series of large woodcuts. This series was produced after the artist's first experience of the highway in 1832, during which time he made sketches.

But the prints in the series were clearly not intended to be merely a topographically accurate record. "One seeks in vain the actual scenes he drew," Richard Lane observes in "Images From the Floating World."

Nevertheless, the print shown here is specified as the 16th stage and shows travelers trudging through snow near the village of Kanbara. Hiroshige seems more interested in conditions of light and weather - in this case, snow and heavily falling darkness to which travelers along the Tokaido were subjected - than in reminding the buyers of his prints of actual places. In other prints, for example, the figures in his landscapes are seen setting out at sunrise, undergoing a cloudburst, or taking a ferry in misty conditions.

Hiroshige's interest in depicting winter scenes is celebrated in an exhibition devoted to them currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. This print is from that show.

Hiroshige was a master of white spaces, so snow suited him. He observed how it altered and rounded the forms of every feature of a landscape - here hills, roofs, trees, and the road itself. And the travelers - one with a mushroom-shaped umbrella, another with a straw "raincoat," two with hats - are themselves being covered with snow. They are transformed into an unfamiliar species.

The exhibition, 'Hiroshige: The Winter Scenes,' runs until Dec. 18 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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