Today we’re transporting time and spack back to Japan during the early 19th century. Back in fact to 1797 if we herald the year that Hiroshige was born. He later became to be championed as one of two great masters of Japanese landscape woodblock prints, the other master being Hokusai. The Europeans were charmed by this artists work, and the Impressionists heavily influenced by it, Van Gogh having made several copies of some of his work. It is apparent that during his lifetime his own country men were not quite as won over,
‘Outside his own little circle of friends and customers Hiroshige was a man of small importance in Japan. The cultured classes knew him not; and it is only since his work has begun to gain its great and growing reputation in Europe and America, that he is beginning to be appreciated in his own country.
— “The Color-Prints of Hiroshige”, Edward Strange.Cassell, London, 1925
He made prints for book illustrations initially, and began to branch out into landscape during the 1820’s. His first success as an artist was in 1832 with as series of prints ” The Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido. These landscapes depicting the journey down the Tokaido highway are now considered among the greatest of all Japanese landscape prints. This link http://www.hiroshige.org.uk/hiroshige/tokaido/tokaido_map.htms will take you to a map showing you the route, with the 53 stations named and when clicked on it will bring up a copy of the appropriate print he made. Marvellous stuff.
To resume with his story, he married twice, his first wife having died, and he remarried a younger woman ‘ of the world’, which I take to mean someone not quite as demure as his first wife. He clearly had a passion for printmaking, as he notched up a massive total, doing about two prints on a daily basis.Up until his son took over , he also had duties as the local fire warden. During his middle age he was able to devote his life to producing his prints. And he liked sake, but who can blame him. I liked the description of his character in a leaflet produced for the Board of Tourist Industry in 1936 where Prof Yone Noguchi writes
Hiroshige was indeed a man wealthy in soul, though not in purse. Confirming the current dictum of olden time, he was not a Yedo man “wrongly born and therefore a money-maker.” Without money he was always happy, and with unconstrained placidity he was nonchalant towards the trifling and mercenary matters of the common world. Yet he rigidly observed social courtesy. He was fond of quiet company, but treated his friends handsomely. He left these words in one of his wills, “Reduce foolish expenses without being niggardly ; you should feast richly the people who kindly keep a wake before my coffin.”
The artist died aged 62 of cholera leaving an enormous body of work, maybe over 8000 as estimated by Minoru Uchida. That is some legacy. Here I am showing you some of my favourites. If you are interested in seeing more, then I suggest you take a virtual trip over here http://www.hiroshige.org.uk/index.html
I can’t help feeling there is some sense of ‘wabi’ in these works. It’s hard to define an exact meaning to a Japanese sense, but what I get is a sense of aloneness in nature that is underpinned by an existential state of being solitary and yet held by a life force of creativity. Artists have dug deep into themselves to access an expression of ‘wabi-sabi’, more universally understood as ;
” …a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional. … The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably “rustic”. … Things wabi-sabi are unstudied and inevitable looking. .. unpretentious. .. Their craftsmanship may be impossible to discern. “
- "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers",
As the artist reveals himself through his art, and as he is later described by various followers, Hiroshige retains throughout his life his sense of self, a man grateful to be practising his art, making his own decisions by deciding to travel and produce topographical illustrations , deciding not to teach as was the custom for the skilled artist in Japan, choosing his own company but retaining humour with felllow travellers, maintaining an energy from doing what he loved doing.In his fifties he became a novice, I can imagine the Buddhist doctrine sat well with his retiring nature, and from Prof Noguchi we learn that he was
” As a man self-possessed and free, who carried life’s calamity lightly, with a smile suitable to the humorous poet that he was, Hiroshige found a moment amid the agonies of death to write the following Uta poem in his usual playful vein:
“I leave my brush at Azuma,
I go to the Land of the West on a journey
To view the famous sights there.”
When he died at 62, he was one of 28000 victims of an outbreak of cholera. That makes his roll-call at the end of his life that much more impressive. He worked because he loved it. How good is that? To add confusion he did take a pupil who married his daughter, and became known as Hiroshige ll, but his quality of work was never up to his namesakes and what is sadder, the marriage failed too. Hiroshige had lost his only son years before, in 1845 . It is possible to find prints made by Hiroshige ll quite easily, but don’t get fooled that you’ve got one of his dads!!