Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Hiroshige’s Views of Tokyo

A catalogue of the Ashmolean’s collection of prints of Edo by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) by Oliver Impey (published Oxford, 1993).

Hiroshige’s Views of Tokyo by Oliver Impey

Hiroshige’s views of Tokyo

The woodblock print is perhaps the most familiar form of Japanese art in the west. To a great extent this is due to the impact these extraordinary designs, and this novel way of looking at the world had upon the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. Although Japanese prints had been known in Europe since the 1820s, it was only in the 1850s that they were recognised as so revolutionary in concept, when compared with the European tradition of depiction; they were to change the course of European art.

It is often claimed that the first prints to be seen were those of poor quality, the prints that were being produced at that time in Japan, most of which were, indeed, of little interest visually. This is not true. While the greatest works were not to arrive in Europe for another decade, there were enough good prints available for many of the painters to start to collect them; Monet, van Gogh, Mary Cassatt and several others owned a number of prints. Among these early arrivals, and represented in the collections of several artists, were landscape prints by Ando Hiroshige, the woodblock-print artist who perfected the genre, after its introduction into the woodblock-print medium by Katsushige Hokusai, shortly after 1800.

Popular woodblock prints, that is, prints for the new plebeian market of the townsman, who for the first time in Japan had money to spend, began in the middle of the seventeenth century. The style used for these prints, or rather, the variety of sub-styles descends from an amalgam of earlier painting styles, in particular from that of the Chinese-derived Kano school, the 'classical' school of ink-painting and decorative coloured painting, and the more old-fashioned style of the Tosa school, who drew their origins from the Heian period (794-1185) Yamato-e, or 'Japanese painting'.

In the hands of the popular painters, this fusion of apparently irreconcilable styles developed a life of its own. The subject-matter became the common man, his preoccupations and his 'pop' heroes; from storytelling in printed books and from broad-sheet souvenir pictures of famous tourist or pilgrimage places, men and women came to dominate the scenes. This was new to Japan, for usually figure-painting was relatively subdued.

The figures became larger in proportion to the picture- space, and tended to show individual persons, some real, some legendary or imaginary, but nevertheless the idea at least of a single individual. Even with the relatively minimal convention for depiction of physiognomy one can learn to identify the face, say, of Osen, the tea-house waitress girl-friend of the printmaker Suzuki Harunobu.

During the eighteenth century, colour was introduced, at first added by hand (as in Europe - 'penny plain, twopence coloured'), they by the use of two additional blocks, one for red and one for green, and finally, in mid-century, the fully polychrome print was achieved by the use of ten colour-blocks.

The majority of prints of the second half of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth depicted 'folk heroes' of one sort or another; wrestlers, kabuki actors, often playing a dramatic role, courtesans, whose latest kimono could be seen as fashion-plates, tea-house girls and a host of others, nearly all in some way providing entertainment in the raffish, hedonistic area of Edo, the Yoshiwara. These were Ukiyo-e, 'pictures of the floating world', the world of ephemeral pleasures of a newly rich society. This was truly a 'pop' art, for it was truly popular.

We do not really know what those who bought these prints usually did with them. They were ephemera, befitting the world from which they sprang, and yet many have survived. Nor were the print-runs all that large; by the end of the century, probably only a hundred or two were pulled from each set of blocks. Many were, of course, re-printed; sometimes, later, so often that the blocks became visibly worn and even had to be re-cut.

The introduction of pictures of landscape into the genre, in effect a re-introduction of landscape, for the study of landscape had hitherto been the preoccupation of serious painters of other schools, was made possible by a technical innovation, the wiping by the printer of some of the colour off the block before printing so as to achieve a gradation of colour on the paper.

Japanese prints are the product of a collaboration between four persons; the publisher who commissioned the work from an artist, often in a series to ensure continued sales; the artist who made the original design, usually a drawing with indication of details rather than a finished coloured drawing; the block-cutter who interpreted this drawing and cut first a key-block and then from that the ten colour-blocks; and the printer whose skill it was to balance the printed colours.

The actual blocks were made of cherry-wood cut along the grain, so that, in the work of Hiroshige and some others, the woodgrain can often be seen, carefully used to enhance the strength of the design. The blocks were placed face up; there were 'keys' at the corners to ensure correct alignment, and the blocks were coloured individually. Sometimes, as we have seen, the printer would remove some of the colour to produce a progressive diminution of the intensity of the colour in, say, the sky, or to achieve the effect of mist. The paper was pressed down onto the block and rubbed with a form of cushion, called a baren. It was allowed to dry and was then applied to the next block in the sequence, for a new area to be printed in a different colour.

Paper of different sizes was available; we shall see that Hiroshige preferred the oban size, 27 x 40 cm. when used in the horizontal format. Most landscape prints used this paper horizontally, as one would expect; but some of the most striking designs, even of landscape, were made with the paper vertical. Hiroshige's last great series, the 'One hundred views of famous places in Edo', admittedly more townscape than landscape, utilises this vertical format to great advantage.

Ando Hiroshige was born in Edo (Tokyo) in 1797, son of a hereditary fire-warden, whose job he inherited at twelve years old. As this post was partly honorary, he was able to join the studio of the print-maker Utagawa Toyohiro (1773-1828) in 1811. In 1812 he was given, in effect awarded, the studio name of Utagawa Hiroshige, and this is the name by which he should correctly be referred to today, though for some reason his family name, Ando is normally, and erroneously used. The gift of a studio name was a mark of confidence in the pupil's ability. This confidence may, at first, have been misplaced, for until he found his metier in the landscape print, following the lead of Hokusai, in his first landscape series in 1831, and, more famously in his great 'Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road' begun in 1833, his work had been undistinguished and mostly merely imitative of the work of others.

These landscape prints made his reputation almost overnight. Unusually, they owe little or nothing to the work of his master, Toyohiro; not often, even at this late date, could a Japanese artist break away so completely from his teacher's influence or even from his studio. Nor were his landscapes derivative of the work of Hokusai; where the older artist had sought dramatic scenes, bold visual effects and frequently a strong human presence, Hiroshige's work is more muted, calmer, more quietly beautiful.

It is usually considered that the work Hiroshige produced between the years 1833 and 1844 ranks as his best. After 1844 following the austerity edicts of the Tempo period reforms, he seems to have lost direction, and demand forced him to turn to other subjects. Of these other subjects, only the kacho-e, the bird-and-flower prints are particularly notable; among them are two series of fish, which must rank among his best work in any area. However, in the last years of his life (he died during a cholera epidemic in 1858), he made the major part of the fine series 'One hundred views of famous places in Edo' in vertical format, finished after his death by his adopted son Hiroshige II.

His output had been phenomenal; doubtless this contributed to the uneven quality of the later period prints. Among his other series of prints were another six series of the Tokaido Road, each with fifty-five prints, and a series of the Kisokaido Road of seventy prints. The Tokaido road is the southern highway between Tokyo and Kyoto, where the travelling stages divided into fifty three convenient stopping-places ('stations') and one at each end. At each of these 'stations' there was every variety of entertainment and lodging to be had. The Kisokaido road, the northern route, had sixty-nine stations. The roads were by then frequently used by ordinary people, as travel became not only popular, but produced a sort of sub-culture of its own; apart from the work of Hiroshige, perhaps the most famous manifestation of this is Ikku's novel Tokaido hizakurige, [By foot along the Tokaido road], published between 1802 and 1809.

Other series of prints by Hiroshige include more Views of Edo, and views of Kyoto, Lake Biwa, Osaka, and Kanazawa; two Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji; series of views of rivers and harbours and the fine 'Views of the sixty-odd provinces'.

Hiroshige's prints are an evocative reminder of a slow-paced world, almost as far away from the frenetic Yoshiwara for whose denizens they were produced as they are from the differently high-speed world that produced the Shinkansen, 'bullet train' that runs the Tokaido road today.



Suggestions for further reading


Richard Lane 'Images of the Floating World' (Oxford, 1978).


Henry D. Smith II and Amy G. Poster 'Hiroshige; One Hundred Famous Views of Edo' (New York, 1986).


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