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Monday, March 5, 2012

Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige Memorial Portrait,
One of the most persistent stories art historians love to tell involves of one their own, cast in a heroic mode, peeking and poking through the cobwebs, spiders, dirt and dust of some dark, dank, basement archive in search of something (perhaps a broom) when "voile`" they stumble (sometimes literally) over something else of far greater, even inestimable, artistic value. Okay, get ready, I've got a story like that to tell you. 

Her name was Amy G. Poster. The year was 1970. She'd just gone to work for the Brooklyn Museum of Art. She was new at the job and was down in the basement (not dark, dank, or dirty at all, by the way) when she came upon an album of old Japanese prints that had been sitting down there on the same shelf for close to forty years. Printed on thick but fragile mulberry paper, in bright, gorgeous color, they were over a hundred years old even back then. They were block prints, one hundred of them, and it would be another seventeen years before they were finally displayed. That was 1987. Today, you can go to the Brooklyn Museum and see "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo" (modern day Tokyo). It's one of only six complete sets of the prints known to exist. The artist was Utagawa Hiroshige.

36 Views of Mt. Fuji, The Sea off Satta,
1858, Utagawa Hiroshge, today his
most popular series.
Hiroshige was born in 1797, the son of an Edo fireman. He began studying art as a child and produced his first picture at the age of eleven. When he was twelve, his father died and as was the custom, he took his father's job. For fourteen long years, he studied art and watched out for fires in his notoriously flammable hometown. At the age of twenty-six, his brother assumed his duties as fireman and Hiroshige began studying art full time. He wanted to learn to paint portraits, but there was no opening for an apprentice in that school so he was forced to study under the less prestigious landscape painter, Utagawa Toyohiro. That was fortunate, for had he become a portrait painter, he would have been lost in the crowd of many. Painting landscapes, he had room to grow with the art form, which in the end, he was responsible for making quite popular among Japan's middle-classes. At the age of fifty he changed his name to Tokubei, which was his third name-change, by the way. Then later, he changed it again, taking on the first name of his master, Utagawa, upon his death.

Fifty-three Stages of Tokaido , 1833-34, Utagawa Hiroshige
It's difficult for us, thinking of painting in western terms of oil on canvas, to imagine the work of a Japanese artist of almost 200 years ago. What we have to look at in most cases are woodblock prints. Hiroshige did not carve the blocks, or ink them, or even print them. As the artist, he got credit for all that, but in fact, he was only the first of four or more individuals involved in the process. He painted with an ink like pigment on paper (basically watercolor). A publisher chose his work to be printed. A key block was cut, usually from cherry wood by a master carver, and printed in black ink (by a fourth individual); whereupon the artist once more took charge, supervising the coloration process involving several more carved blocks (usually by apprentices) one for each color, followed by hand printing using a baren and the printer's own body weight. Editions numbered from a few hundred to a few thousand. In the Ukiyo-e tradition, subtle shadings of color were obtained by carefully wiping away some of the ink from the block before it was printed. Hiroshige was the last and greatest of this school. Most famous for his Fifty-three Stages of Tokaido series, Hiroshige prints use brilliantly colored inks containing mica, giving them an iridescent quality. Ironically, it was Hiroshige's new realism that made his work so popular with the Japanese middle-classes; while in Europe, artists such as Manet, Monet, Pissaro, van Gogh, and Matisse, in discovering Hiroshige prints, were instead fascinated and influenced by their flat, compositional design.
Great Bridge: Sudden Shower at Atake, 1833-34, Utagawa Hiroshige's print on the left,
Vincent van Gogh's copy, The Bridge in the Rain, 1886-88, on the right.

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