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Hiroshige’s Views of Mount Fuji

A catalogue of the Ashmolean’s collection of woodblock print views of Mount Fuji by Hiroshige (1797-1858) by Oliver Impey (published Oxford, 2001).

Hiroshige’s Views of Mount Fuji by Oliver Impey

Views of Mount Fuji by Hiroshige

The landscape print was made possible by a technical innovation. Japanese prints of the Edo period (1600-1868) were made from cherry-wood blocks, cut along the grain. Each colour block (and there were usually up to ten used) was used for a particular colour. This means that when the colour was applied to the block before printing, there was a circumscribed area of the solid colour that would be transferred to the paper. In the late eighteenth century, the printers learned how to wipe some of the colour off this coloured area, so that the colour would appear graduated upon the paper. The technique is called bokashi. This was contrary to all established practice, but it made the appearance of the landscape print possible, for graduated colour could be used for areas of sky, or water or whatever the artist needed to depict.

The making of Japanese prints, whether of the Ukiyo-e school, the “school” most associated with prints, or of the several others, depended upon collaboration between four persons. It is easy to associate any work with the name of the artist, the man (rarely a woman in Japan) who drew the original design for the print. But it is not that simple. A publisher would commission an artist to make a series of designs for prints, which would appear either as individual prints within a set (such as Hiroshige’s “The thirty-six views of Mount Fuji” many of which we depict here, or Utamaro’s “The twelve hours of the Green Houses” depicting famous courtesans), or as a book (such as Hokusai’s “One hundred views of Mount Fuji”). The artist, be it Hiroshige or any other, would then do a full-size drawing, usually rather sketchy, of the design, with indications of the colours required. Given the enormous number of designs by fashionable and successful artists such as Hiroshige, it is hardly surprising that these sketches are somewhat perfunctory. This sketch would then be passed to the block-cutter. As it was only a sketch, the power and importance of the block-cutter was enormous, for he it was who “finished” the drawing before cutting the key-block, and then from that the individual colour blocks. Some block-cutters were better than others, and it was the publisher, not the artist, who decided which block-cutter was to be used.

This made a great difference to the finished product, even taking into account the later work of the printer. If one looks at the series by Hokusai entitled “One hundred poems explained by the nurse” one can see quite clearly that the blocks were cut by a different craftsman than those of Hokusai’s “The thirty-six views of Mount Fuji” series. One could almost be forgiven in assuming they were by different artists. The cutting of the blocks makes that much difference.

The blocks were then passed to the printer. Although aware of the colours required, it was ultimately the printer who determined exactly which variation of each colour was to be used and how intense these colours would be. It is only when one sees Japanese woodblock prints in perfect unfaded colours that one can realise how subtle these colours could be, at their best, and lament how fugitive these pigments were. So the printer, too, had a strong input into the finished product; one wonders how often the artist was angered at the changes wrought to his work by others.

The block was printed face up; that is, the paper was applied to the block, not the block to the paper, as it is done in the west. This, of course, made it simpler for the printer to wipe part of a colour block to produce the graduated colour. The first printing was of the key block, the basic outlines of the design; this would be printed before the cutting of the individual colour blocks, for the colour blocks would be cut from a key-block pasted onto the wood. This means that there was a close collaboration between printer and block-cutter, for the block-cutter depended upon the prints pulled from the key-block (which he had cut) for the cutting of his other blocks.

We usually call the developed, full-colour print, first made in Japan in the mid-eighteenth century, a ten-colour print. But frequently more than ten blocks were required. If one examines a print of a portrait of a courtesan by Utamaro, one can see that the elaborate hair-do has lines of hair that cross each other. This, of course, is virtually impossible to achieve on one block, and certainly requires at least two blocks, one for the hair falling one way, the other for the crossing hair.

So all prints are the work of a series of craftsmen, artists within their own genre, but we recognise the work of the draftsman, the “artist” behind them, and with good reason. The woodblock print artists produced some of the most striking images, some of the most inventive designs ever made anywhere.

The Ukiyo-e “school” of artists were those who catered to the mass-markets of Edo, modern Tokyo, and other large towns such as Osaka. Prints were cheap, or reasonably cheap, and were affordable to the townsman, the chōnin, and to the lower-ranking samurai who appear to have been the major customers. Before the advent of the landscape print, almost all such prints had been of the ephemeral world of the pleasure-seeking, hedonistic pleasure-quarters of these large towns. These were depictions of the current “pop” heroes of the day, the actors, wrestlers, courtesans and tea-house girls and of their milieu. Portraits of courtesans were as much a portrait of the latest fashion in the kimono or their component textiles as they were real depictions of a fashionable beauty. The nude was virtually never depicted, even in shunga, the so-called “pillow-books”; it was the clothes that mattered. Other prints might be of stories that would be appreciated in this sub-world. This was a hard business world, and very competitive, with an undertone of necessary precautions that had to be taken in order not to catch the eye of the government that would stamp rapidly on any infringement of license, any politically suspect movement. Violence and depictions of sex were commonplace; politics were off limits.

The landscape print was different; it was neutral. What is perhaps surprising is that it existed at all. After all, landscape was the most serious subject matter of Japanese painting; most Japanese artists were trained by a Kano school teacher, whose emphasis would have been in Chinese-derived ink-painting and on landscape painting. Why should this subject-matter have appealed to the chōnin? Surely he would have wanted to get away from all that? Certainly throughout the eighteenth century this appears to have been true as far as prints were concerned, though we know that rich chōnin patronised the Shijo and Maruyama school painters. But paintings were expensive, prints much cheaper and therefore available to a wider market. And in the early years of the nineteenth century not only was landscape appearing more strongly as the background to prints of other subject matter, but also that background was frequently of real places and recognisable. Particularly were the inhabitants of Edo beginning to become interested in their own surroundings, the landscape of Edo.

Probably in 1830, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) began to produce for the publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi, his justly celebrated “Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji”. This series of prints, always striking in design and often dramatic, was the first series to make the landscape, oban size (about 40 x 70cm) print an individual genre in its own right. The series was an immediate success and was quite certainly the inspiration to Hiroshige to venture into this genre.

Hiroshige (1797-1858) was the son of a hereditary firewatcher, Andō Genemon, in Yaesugashi, present-day Marunouchi; the post was virtually a sinecure. His first given name was Tokutarō. At the age of twelve, orphaned, he inherited his father’s position, which enabled him to follow his own inclination, to become a print artist. In 1811, having failed, apparently, to enter the studio of Utagawa Kunisada, a most dynamic artist, he entered the studio of Utagawa Toyohiro, an artist with, then, little following, and somewhat unproductive.

The young Hiroshige’s early work is relatively uninteresting, though it was more influenced by the contemporary work of Eisen and Kunisada than it was by that of his master. It was in Toyohiro's studio that he received the art-name Hiroshige. Although sometimes known today as Andō Hiroshige or Ichiyūsai Hiroshige, he should perhaps more properly be known as Utagawa Hiroshige.

Hiroshige’s first landscape print series was Tōto meisho, “Famous views in the Eastern Capital [Edo]," for the publisher Kawaguchiya Shōzō, of about 1831-2. This may not have been an immediate success, for it was particularly well produced and probably correspondingly expensive; possibly too expensive for a more-or-less unknown artist. His second landscape series was a resounding success, and has become one of the most famous and most reproduced series of all Japanese prints. This was, of course, “The fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road” Tokaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi of about 1831-4 for the publishers Takenouchi Magohachi (Hōeidō) and Maruya Sejirō. Legend has it, almost certainly apocryphally, that the idea of the series depicting the fifty-three resting places on the main high road between Edo and Kyoto, the old capital, came to Hiroshige when he was included in the party that delivered the Shogun’s annual gift of a white horse to the Emperor in 1832. Certainly it was an economic coup, for the increasing number of travellers using the Tokaido Road seem anxious to have bought souvenirs of their journey. Forrer estimates that sales of some prints must have been of fifteen to twenty thousand copies.

This was not, of course immediate, nor were the financial rewards to the artist all that high; he worked hard for the rest of his life, producing an enormous number of series and a correspondingly more enormous number of designs. It has been estimated that at least 4000 of his designs actually appeared as prints, to say nothing of the 120-odd books for which he made the illustrations, many of them picture-books. Possibly his greatest success, after the Tokaido series, was the series “One hundred famous views in Edo”, Meisho Edo hakkei for the publisher Uoya Eikichi in the years 1856-1858. A group of these prints were exhibited in the Ashmolean Museum in 1993; see the booklet “Hiroshige’s views of Tokyo” that accompanied that exhibition.

Hiroshige’s last series, produced in conjunction with, and, indeed prob­ably finished by Utagawa Hiroshige II, was “The thirty-six views of Mount Fuji” Fuji sanjū rokkei, for the publisher Tsutaya in about 1858-9, many probably appearing after Hiroshige’s death. Hiroshige II (1829-1869) was, in time-honoured Japanese fashion, the pupil, adopted son and son-in-law of Hiroshige. In 1865, he abandoned his wife, left Edo and reverted to his former name Shigenobu, but before then, he had worked in Hiroshige’s studio.

In “The thirty-six views of Mount Fuji”, as with all his landscape prints, the artist made little pretence at accuracy. If you try to find the exact spot where Hiroshige sat to draw his first sketch, you are doomed to failure; the view of the mountain would be more or less as seen from that angle; there would be sea or whatever in approximately the right place; that is probably all. It is more than possible that Hiroshige never went near some of the places that are putatively those of the viewpoint. But these were the accepted view-points, the places that were famous for their view of the sacred mountain

Included in this booklet are fourteen prints from the series “The thirty-six views of Mount Fuji”, all those we have in the collection of the Department. For the sake of comparison, we have also included some views of Mount Fuji from other series by Hiroshige, avoiding the better known prints. No-one would claim that “the thirty six views of Mount Fuji” is one of Hiroshige’s finest series; it is not. But for that very reason it is not often illustrated or exhibited, and this is a pity, for it includes some very striking prints.

Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano, comparatively young geologically, an isolated cone 12,385 feet in height. It last erupted in 1707-8. As everyone knows, it is shaped as a smoothly curving, almost perfectly symmetrical cone, arising out of low foothills. The Japanese often compare the shape to an inverted fan. At the base, it measures some eighty miles in circumference, at its peak, two and a half. The low lying of the land, especially that around Edo, which was mostly built on a marsh, means that on clear days it can be seen from great distances. Again, as every traveller to Japan knows this great mountain exerts a fascination out of all proportion even to its great mass; it is or can be ravishingly beautiful. This is perhaps particularly so when the summit is covered in snow, as is the case for about half the year. No wonder poets have extolled it and artists so frequently and so lovingly depicted it.

As Basil Hall Chamberlain wrote in his “Things Japanese” of 1890, an early classic European work on Japan, “natives and foreigners, artists and holiday-makers, alike fall down in adoration before the wondrous mountain which stands utterly alone in its union of grace and majesty. During the Middle Ages, when Fuji’s volcanic fires were more active than at present, a commonplace of the poets was to liken the ardour of their love to that which lit up the mountain-top with flame”.

The origin and meaning of the name Fuji are obscure. Today it can be written as fu-ni, “not two” meaning peerless, or it can be written as “prosperous gentleman”; only the sound resembles the word for Wisteria, not the characters. It has always been sacred. By the seventh century it was worshipped by the wandering ascetic monks, the yamabushi, though it was still dangerously active. In 1149 we have the first account of an actual ascent of the mountain, by a certain Matsudai, at a time when there was being formed a religious cult called Shugendō. In the Edo period the religion of Fuji was called Fujikō, founded by an ascetic named Kakugyō, who is supposed to have lived to the age of 105 years. In the eighteenth century the ascent of the mountain became a sort of pilgrimage, though it was forbidden to women. According to Chamberlain, the first woman to ascend Mount Fuji, in 1867, was Lady Parkes, wife of Sir Harry Parkes, British Minister to Japan from 1865-1883. As late as 1904, when Herbert Ponting climbed it, horses were only allowed up as far as the Umagaeshi (“horse-return”) Station, at about 4500 feet, for fear of their polluting presence. The climbing season today is July and August.

The slight asymmetry of the mountain is on the south side, where there is a slight hump called Hoei-zan, caused by a relatively minor eruption which lasted, on and off, from 16 December 1708 to 22 January 1709. This is the most recent eruption of the mountain.

Hiroshige’s public was as fascinated by the mountain as are the Japanese today. A new view of Fuji can be had from an aeroplane flying from Haneda to Fukuoka, which may allow one to see into the crater as it passes just to one side.


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