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Travel across nostalgic yet familiar Japanese landscapes captured in museum ukiyo-e prints

The woodblock print "Fireworks at Ryogoku" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1880, Private collection)

TOKYO -- While the coronavirus pandemic currently limits our chances to travel, visitors can pore over beautiful Japanese landscapes at an exhibition held at an art museum in the Tokyo suburban city of Machida.

    "Ukiyo-e Landscapes: Hiroshige, Kiyochika, and Hasui -- Eyes of Three Generations" is currently being held at Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts and will continue through Sept. 12.

    The exhibit features traditional woodblock prints by three artists that were active in three different eras. Visitors may feel they are traveling through time as they move from picture to picture in the rich collection spanning over a century.

    Though buildings, people's clothing and other elements have changed over the years, the artists of the three generations each captured landscapes and scenes imbued with an ambience unique to Japan. The locations and seasonal festivities seen in the works still exist today, making the images both familiar and nostalgic.

    As the exhibit showcases selections of the three painters' works that portray the exact same locales in Edo, or Tokyo, during their respective eras, viewers can enjoy observing differences in artistic techniques, as well as changes to Japan's capital throughout the ages. The collaborative efforts among ukiyo-e craftsmen, as well as the interaction between foreign countries and Japan through ukiyo-e prints are another aspect that can be appreciated in these works.

    The woodblock print "Zojoji Temple in Snow, from the Series 'Famous Places in the Eastern Capital'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Utagawa Hiroshige, late Tenpo era, Private collection)

    Near the exhibit's entrance are three pictures showing Zojoji Temple covered in snow -- works by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), the prominent Edo ukiyo-e painter known for depicting various scenic spots across Japan; as well as Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) and Kawase Hasui (1883-1957), artists of later eras who incorporated traditional ukiyo-e methods while also adding their own styles and Western influences.

    The woodblock print "Snow at Zojoji Temple, Shiba, from the Series 'One Hundred Views of Musashi Province'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1884, S. Watanabe Color Print Co. collection)
    The woodblock print "Zojoji Temple, Shiba, from the Series 'Twenty Views of Tokyo'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kawase Hasui, 1925, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)

    All three pictures juxtapose the contrasting elements of the red temple building and the white snow, and feature people with umbrellas. Many other prints by the three artists also portray the same locales under specific weather conditions -- for example, rain at Shin-Ohashi Bridge.

    Kana Murase, curator of the Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts, pointed out that with the Zojoji Temple prints, it is interesting to observe the difference in the usage of color and composition among the three painters. The temple shown in Hiroshige's Edo period (1603-1867) ukiyo-e is vermillion, while the one in Kiyochika's print has a more impactful color due to the usage of chemical dyes which were imported during the Meiji period (1868-1912).

    While Hiroshige's landscape shows Zojoji Temple and its surrounding area, Kiyochika and Hasui's prints offer a close-up of the view. As the Edo artist created the work as part of a series of famed views, the picture is rather "explanatory," while the painters of the later generations focused on the pictures' artistic beauty, said the curator.

    Differences in techniques can also be seen in the batch of prints portraying Kameido Tenjin shrine, cherished among Edo locals as a scenic spot for viewing wisteria flowers. All three prints present an arched bridge and figures appearing to be a mother and child crossing it, with wisteria flowers hanging overhead as if to partially block the scene in the background. This composition in which a famed view is seen through a motif depicted largely in the foreground -- which lets the viewer feel as if they are inserted in the landscape themselves -- is said to have drawn on Utagawa Hiroshige's works from the series "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo."

    The woodblock print "Kameido Tenjin Shrine, from the Series 'One Hundred Views of Musashi Province'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1884, S. Watanabe Color Print Co. collection)
    The woodblock print "Wisteria at Kameido" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kawase Hasui, 1932, S. Watanabe Color Print Co. collection)

    While it can be said that Kiyochika and Hasui clearly referenced the motifs and composition used for Hiroshige's work, their art is also marked with their respective individuality. Meiji painter Kiyochika depicted the bridge as seen from a diagonal angle, and the tree branches are also arranged diagonally across the picture, as opposed to Hiroshige's picture consisting of mainly straight lines. Kiyochika also seems to have taken note of and enhanced Hiroshige's gradation techniques used for the water's surface.

    Meanwhile, Hasui's print, which was produced during the Showa period (1926-1989), expressed the wavering surface of the water and added the bridge's reflection, making the picture more three-dimensional. Hasui's technique of depicting the wisteria by combining light and dark shades of purple bring out the flowers' voluminous nature. This greatly differs from the bold contours seen in Edo ukiyo-e, which were a natural outgrowth of the medium of woodblock prints. Nonetheless, the picture adopts a viewpoint similar to that of Hiroshige's original, and "contains both traces of the traditional work as well as its own distinctiveness," said the curator. Another fun aspect to look out for, she says, is the change in the people's clothing over time.

    The curator recommended "Rain at Shinobazu Pond" by Kiyochika as a work that shows the humid season of Japan very well through the use of light and shadows. The Meiji painter, who is thought to have been influenced by Western art, often expressed rainy days by showing the glistening surface of the wet ground and people holding umbrellas. Hiroshige tended to depict rain in numerous thin lines overlapping each other and drawn at different angles, while Hasui used short lines to express rain falling down gently. Visitors of the exhibit can also enjoy comparing how the three painters portrayed certain weather and other elements.

    Besides differences in artistic techniques, the works of the three artists showed changes in townscape and lifestyles, as the old town of Edo gradually turned into Japan's current capital of Tokyo. Kiyochika's prints featured people dressed in kimonos or those aboard a rickshaw looking at Western-style buildings, as well as horse-drawn carriages and steam locomotives. The old and new intermingled in these pieces produced during the period of "bunmei-kaika" (civilization and enlightenment, or modernization through westernization) following the end of Japan's "sakoku" policy which kept it closed off from much of the world for over 200 years.

    The woodblock print "View of Lotus Pond at Shinobugaoka, from the Series 'Famous Places in the Eastern Capital'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Utagawa Hiroshige, early Tenpo era, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)
    The woodblock print "Rain at Shinobazu Pond" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1876-80, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)
    The woodblock print "Rain at Shinobazu Pond, from the Series 'Twenty Views of Tokyo'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kawase Hasui, 1929, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)

    A mixture of traditional and modern elements can be seen in prints portraying Shinobazu Pond in Ueno, including in Kiyochika's work. The artist's print shows a woman carrying a Western-style umbrella before a pond full of lotuses, with Benten-do Temple seen on an island floating in the background -- scenery which remains unchanged from the Edo period. Fast forward a half-century to Hasui's time, and fences as well as benches are set up around the pond. The presence of female figures with traditional umbrellas amid this modern landscape adds to the fascination of the picture, said Murase. She said that visitors can enjoy snapshots of the landmark from different eras, and even compare them with the famous site still existing in Ueno today, which some may pass by on a day-to-day basis.

    The building seen in Kiyochika's "Dai-ichi Bank at Kaiunbashi Bridge in the Snow" blends Western-style architecture with Japanese castle architecture, and the composition apparently makes the structure resemble Mount Fuji in Edo ukiyo-e prints. Another Kiyochika work "Snow at Surugacho" shows the same avenue depicted in Hiroshige's "Suruga-cho Street, from the Series 'Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,'" but with a bank building peeking out from a clothing shop, replacing the view of Mount Fuji seen in the earlier work.

    The woodblock print "Snow at Tsukishima, from the Series 'Twenty Views of Tokyo'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kawase Hasui, 1930, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)

    In the Taisho era (1912-1926), during Hasui's time, the production of "shin-hanga" (new prints), began. This movement aimed to revive the traditional Edo ukiyo-e system of producing woodblock prints through collaboration between the "eshi" painter who draws the preliminary sketch, the "horishi" craftsman who carves woodblocks based on these sketches, and "surishi" craftsmen who print the colors onto paper using these woodblocks.

    Another compelling aspect of the exhibit's works is that they present the techniques and talent of not only the painter, but the other craftsmen involved. Hasui's "Snow at Tsukishima, from the Series 'Twenty Views of Tokyo'" deliberately shows the traces left by the "baren" rubbing pad used during the printing process to portray a blizzard. Kiyochika's "Rain at Shinobazu Pond" expresses shadows and shades in painstaking detail, reflecting the skills of the "horishi" carver, said the curator. The "horishi" craftsman's name was even included on the print, which was apparently extremely rare at the time.

    The woodblock print "Moonlit Night (The Garden Pond), from the Series 'The Mitsubishi Mansion in Fukagawa'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (Kawase Hasui, 1920, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)

    From the Meiji period onward, ukiyo-e became studied overseas, and some publications even had English titles directly printed onto the work at the time of their original release. One such example is Kiyochika's "Barge-Haulers at Night in Koume, Tokyo." Meanwhile, Hasui's "Moonlit Night (The Garden Pond), from the Series 'The Mitsubishi Mansion in Fukagawa'" was commissioned by the company Mitsubishi Honsha, and was sent to affiliated parties overseas.

    Citing such examples as well as Kiyochika's incorporation of Western-style art techniques as a new element to ukiyo-e, the curator said that these traditional Japanese woodblock prints have been heavily influenced by both the world of art and its audience overseas. While Hiroshige's Edo ukiyo-e works, including the famous plum garden in Kameido, are well-known for being emulated by Vincent van Gogh and other European artists as part of Japonisme, Hiroshige's use of perspective is said to have been inspired by Western art. In this sense, during the Edo period, Japanese and Western art influenced each other mutually, and it was not just a one-way process, said Murase.

    While the exhibit displays a rich collection of works filled with many details, one does not need to be an ukiyo-e expert to enjoy them. In fact, although the ukiyo-e prints we see today are framed and hung on museum walls, they were originally treated as everyday items which could be enjoyed by anybody. "Edo locals would gaze at them while holding them in their hands, or by putting them up in their rooms, like a poster," the curator said. In that sense, perhaps it can be said that the exhibition features ordinary landscapes as seen through the eyes of not only the famous artists, but also normal people living in Japan several hundred years ago.

    The woodblock print "Dai-ichi Bank at Kaiunbashi Bridge in the Snow" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. The museum caption states, "Dai-ichi National Bank was a representative example of the architecture of the time, blending Japanese and Western styles. With the lower half hidden by Kaiunbashi Bridge, the triangular silhouette is conversely emphasized, resulting in a stable composition like the views of Mount Fuji depicted in Edo-period ukiyo-e." (Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1876, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)

    "In every age, Japanese people have taken pleasure in events specific to each season, like flower-viewing in spring and fireworks in summer. And the ukiyo-e works capture the scenes of people having fun during these day-to-day activities," she said. "Although it's difficult right now to travel or go to festivals, I hope that visitors will be able to experience and bask in the fun atmosphere shown in the works."

    The "Ukiyo-e Landscapes: Hiroshige, Kiyochika, and Hasui -- Eyes of Three Generations" exhibition is being held from July 10 to Sept. 12, with the first half ending on Aug. 9. Following a two-day closure during which all displayed works will be switched, the second half of the exhibit starts on Aug. 12. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. It is closed on Mondays, except for Aug. 9. English captions and descriptions accompany many of the displayed works.

    The admission fee for adults costs 900 yen (about $8). More information on the exhibit can be found on the museum's official website at http://hanga-museum.jp/exhibition/index/2021-456 (in Japanese) and http://hanga-museum.jp/english/exhibition/2021-456 (in English).

    Woodblock prints are seen on display in "Ukiyo-e Landscapes: Hiroshige, Kiyochika, and Hasui -- Eyes of Three Generations," an exhibition at Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts, in this photo taken in the Tokyo suburban city of Machida on July 9, 2021. (The Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

    The works mentioned in the article are those on display during the exhibition's first half. Please visit the photo special via the link (https://mainichi.jp/english/graphs/20210807/hpe/00m/0et/001000g/1) to see more images, including prints which will be featured in the second leg of the exhibition.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    After reading the article above, put your newly learned knowledge to the test by guessing which painter -- Hiroshige, Kiyochika, or Hasui -- was behind the works shown below. The answers can be found in the photo special at image numbers 9-11 and 12-14.

    The woodblock print "Takinogawa River, from the Series 'Twenty Views of Tokyo'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (1929, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)
    The woodblock print "View of Red Maple Trees by the Takinogawa River at Oji, from the Series 'Famous Places in Edo'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (1853, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)
    The woodblock print "Bridge at Takinogawa Pond" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (ca. 1878, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)
    The woodblock print "Dawn at the Nihonbashi Bridge, from the Series 'Selection of Views of the Tokaido'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (1940, S. Watanabe Color Print Co. collection)
    The woodblock print "Nihonbashi: Departure at Dawn, from the Series 'Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido'" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (late Tenpo era, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)
    The woodblock print "Night at Nihonbashi Bridge" is shown in this image provided by Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts. (ca. 1881, Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts collection)

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