2015年1月1日 星期四

Utagawa Hiroshige :How a Japanese Master Enlightened the West


Featured Artwork of the Day: Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese,1797–1858) | New Year's Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, Ōji | ca. 1857http://met.org/1yF77hT



pellucid ,prehensile

How a Japanese Master Enlightened the West


Published: July 1, 2005
WASHINGTON — Legend has it that mid-19th century French artists discovered the wonders of the Japanese woodcut when they examined papers used to wrap imported Japanese ceramics. Today, looking at the prints of Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, the greatest of Japanese woodcut printmakers, it is hard to fathom that their works could have been viewed as the equivalents of our funny pages.
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Mori Arts Center
Hiroshige's color woodcut of the Satta Pass is from his "Tokaido" series on view at the Phillips Collection.

Japan Art Corporation
A detail of Utagawa Hiroshige's "No. 27 Kakegawa - View of Akiba Mountain."

And it is easy to see how Modernists from Manet to Bonnard could find in the lucidity and technical and formal economy of those Japanese artists inspirational guides for escaping the suffocating conventions of Beaux Arts and Victorian painting.
Now an exhibition at the Phillips Collection here illustrates the influence of Japanese prints on early European and American Modernists. "East Meets West: Hiroshige at the Phillips Collection" interweaves the print series that made Hiroshige famous - "The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido" - with paintings from the museum's collection by famous artists like Cézanne, Whistler and Braque, as well as by artists of less sturdy repute like Augustus Tack, Ernest Lawson and Maurice Prendergast.
It is not a great show as a whole because many of the European and American paintings are of indifferent quality, especially seen next to Hiroshige's work. But it is, nevertheless, an instructive and illuminating one. And it does offer a rare chance to see a complete set of "The Fifty-Three Stations" in pristine condition. It is on loan from a private Japanese collection.
Published around 1833-34, the series is made up of 55 views along the Tokaido Road, the eastern coastal highway that connected Edo - now Tokyo - and Kyoto. There is one print for each of 53 established post-stops and villages along the way and one each depicting bridges at the start and at the end of the journey.
Going by the works drawn from the Phillips Collection, it appears that what Western artists took from Hiroshige and other Japanese printmakers was mainly formal: compositions that appear cropped or leave much empty space in central areas, that emphasize flat design rather than illusory depth and that simplify detail in favor of clear shapes, patterns and linear rhythms.
For the Impressionists, these qualities served the realization of the canvas as a kind of hypersensitve retinal screen that registered visual sensation with an almost photographic lack of visual and compositional discrimination. With Post-Impressionists like van Gogh and Cézanne, there is a shift from the rendering of visual sensation to a self-reflexive interest in the grammar of picture-making. This is not contrary to Japanese tradition, which evolved not by increasing its ability to imitate nature but by the increasing refinement of traditional conventions of representation.
Part of what is so wonderful in Hiroshige is how he gently nudged the schematic abstraction of his fine, prehensile cartoon outlining and flat colors in the direction of naturalism, achieving with pellucid economy naturalistic effects of light and weather and specific descriptions of natural features of the landscape.
In a sense East and West met as they were going in opposite directions: the East toward greater naturalism and the West toward greater abstraction.
Hiroshige's work was a last great flowering of traditional Japanese printmaking. When Japan was forced to open itself to trade with the West in 1853, an influx of Western art and photography rendered Japanese styles of representation obsolete. Meanwhile, Western Modernism took what it needed from the East and sailed on into uncharted realms of abstraction.
Because the Western works in the Phillips Collection are collectively so dull by comparision, the exhibition's main effect is simply to highlight how great Hiroshige is. The experience is visceral: each time you shift your gaze from one of the Western paintings - whether it is a Bonnard, a Prendergast or a Kokoschka - back to one of Hiroshige's perfect, glowing jewels, you feel a kind of physical relief and a rush of pleasure. It would be different had the West been better represented - Manet, Cassatt, van Gogh and Vuillard are among the missing - but in the presence of inferior competition, the Hiroshiges really shine.
In focusing on the Hiroshige prints, you discover something that the Modernist preoccupation with form and abstraction overlooks: how terrifically entertaining they are. Hiroshige was not a mandarin composing pictures for purely aesthetic contemplation by the cultivated few. He was an enormously popular artist. Images from the Tokaido were produced and sold in such numbers - over 10,000 in some cases - that many of the blocks wore out and had to be recut to keep up with demand.
Reasons for that popularity are easy to see. Hiroshige was a wonderfully skillful, witty and generous caricaturist. Almost all the tiny people that populate his landscapes are delightfully particularized in their bodies and their gestures; and though the series features no main protagonists, as illustrations for a novel would, he gives each of his little people a vivid sense of purposeful humanity: the man running after his hat that was blown off by the wind; the women trying to drag prospective customers off the street and into the inns where they work; the men lounging in tea houses; the travelers struggling up and down a mountain slope under a driving rain.
Moreover, Hiroshige conjures the feelings of going on journeys. His prints literally depict all kinds of people in transit and they describe all kinds of places along the way, but they are more than just 19th-century scenic postcards. In almost every print, Hiroshige uses formal devices to enhance a sense of movement through and into space. As paths zigzag from near to far, the eye follows where they lead and the mind wonders where they go beyond the frame of the picture.
In many images, bridges sweep across the space of the picture making you think about where the people crossing came from and where they are going. And bridges often lead into villages so that you feel what the weary traveler feels upon arriving at his destination: anticipation of warmth, food and relaxation. Sometimes destinations are far away, like the castle town at the foot of a distant mountain range that beckons the party of travelers resting in the foreground after crossing a river. There is nothing religious about Hiroshige's imagery, but there is a subliminal sense of travel as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage.
Hardly any of the Western paintings in the Phillips Collection show convey that adventurous feeling of traveling through or into the picture. Ernest Lawson made Impressionist-style pictures of bridges, but leading as they do only into illegible accretions of paint, they are not bridges you feel an urge to cross. Nor does Cézanne's view of Mont Sainte-Victoire inspire a desire to hike into his world; his patchy brushwork blocks imaginative entry like a wall and directs our attention rather to the construction of the picture.
An exception among the Western pictures is a wonderful early painting by Paul Gauguin in which we look down from a high grassy knoll to bathers at the edge of a river and a fisherman farther away on a spit of land. You feel as though you could climb down there yourself to go for a swim or spend a few hours loafing with your own rod and reel.
That dimension of pictorial and psychic travel was left undeveloped by Western Modernist painting, which has tended to try to arrest the eye and the mind in the empirical here and now. But Hiroshige's kind of narrative did not die out. It flourishes in comic books, graphic novels and animated films that Eastern and Western artists continue to churn out in great volumes, transporting minds all over the world.

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