It is a tribute to the sheer loveliness of “Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” These luscious ukiyo-e prints of 19th-century Japan that coloured the course of French Impressionism, and thus, Western art. The prints are ensconced in pink, blue and white galleries that use arboreal motifs blossoms and branches.
The artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) was a lower-level member of the samurai class in Edo the old name for Tokyo. He studied with Utagawa Toyohiro, a master of the “ukiyo-e” tradition. “Ukiyo-e” refers to both a style and a genre. It can be translated as “pictures of the floating world” scenes of pleasurable activities such as a geisha strumming the lutelike samisen, or people gazing at the harvest moon. But these pictures are also reminders of how fleeting the temporal world is, in contrast to the realm of spiritual contemplation.
Hiroshige created his prints, the zenith of his art, from 1856 to ’58 using woodcuts woodblocks cut so that the raised parts form the design that is to be inked. The results are patterns of colour so flat and intense that the images appear to have no depth. Trees, rivers, bridges and people seem to lie in one plane, taking on an abstract quality. When Hiroshige’s works and other Japanese prints were exhibited in late-19th century Paris, they caused a sensation among the French Impressionists and Postimpressionists.
Mary Cassatt was so taken with a big show of these prints that she wrote her friend and fellow Impressionist Berthe Morisot that she dreamed of nothing but the colour and begged her friend to accompany her to the exhibit. Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh began to collect the prints like crazy. And Camille Pissarro pronounced Hiroshige to be a true Impressionist. (A small but stunning pink gallery of works by Van Gogh, Monet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler conveys the fruits of the Japanese master’s influence.) It’s easy to understand the hoopla.
“Tsukudajima from Eitai Bridge” (1857) is a study in moody blues as fishing boats snuggle in a sea that deepens from azure to inky black under a gimlet-eyed moon. In “Dawn at Kanda Myojin Shrine” (1857), three shrine keepers look out at a wondrous sky that is layered blue, green, peach and crimson.
But Hiroshige’s works are about a lot more than colour, as illustrated by “Moon-Viewing Point.” This print offers a room with a view of the harvest moon, with birds and boats bathed by its light. The real view, however, is the room itself. Dishes suggest the remains of a meal. A geisha can be glimpsed in the corner, perhaps finishing a performance. And in the left foreground is the silhouetted figure of a courtesan, her robe discarded on the floor. “Moon-Viewing Point” demonstrates how you can say much indirectly, and something else besides: Technique may make a craftsman, but insight makes an artist.