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#180: LAST MASTERS OF THE FLOATING WORLD. The middle class, historically, have always been popping up somewhere, it seems, and in the seventeenth century they popped up with a vengeance in the newly designated Japanese capital of Edo, which, in contrast to the mountain-surrounded old capital of Kyoto, then called Heian, was eventually to become the sprawling megatropolis of Tokyo. The visual arts, whose patrons ‘til then had been the court and the monasteries, began to find a new audience in the merchant class; and instead of the refined and exquisite beauties of ink-painting, decorated screens and religious sculpture, they began to look at the strange new world around them, of Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, courtesans and the long-invisible scenes of common people. This new art moved from the one-off uniqueness of painting to the woodblock print, reproducible in large quantities; but from the early monochromatic prints it moved on to more and more elaborately colored and shaded works, the production of which involved artist, engraver, printer and publisher and could easily require as many as twenty individual woodblocks. In turn, as the images were reprinted, it became possible—and irresistibly tempting—to tinker with shading and detail, and one of the pleasures of studying the prints can be comparing various impressions, as individual again as the widely differing copies of Blake’s illuminated books, no two exactly alike.

The resulting art was christened ukiyo-e: pictures (e) of the floating world (ukiyo). Artists began to stake their claims: Sharaku was famed for doing theatre portraits, Harunobu and Utamaro for pictures of women. Students of famed artists took part of their names from their masters: Toyoharu’s student was Toyohiro, Toyohiro’s student was Hiroshige, Hiroshige’s student was Shigemasa. Ukiyo was a homophone for a Buddhist term for the world of sorrow and grief; but this was an art aimed at the pleasures of society, and the sorrow got jettisoned; the collector James B. Austin christened it “the fleeting world of fashion and fun.” With the opening of Japan in the nineteenth century, the prints began to make their way west, and famously influenced Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec and others; but well into the twentieth century they were thought of here as plebe art, and Austin could remember buying prints off the sales tables in Scribners in pre-World War II New York for a quarter apiece.

After its beginnings in the later seventeenth century, the ukiyo-e print in the nineteenth century ventured into landscape as well as beautifully turned and memorable bird and flower prints, the domain of the last two masters of the medium, Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige. Hokusai, born in 1760, was one of the most prolific of the printmakers; he spent his apprenticeship doing courtesan prints, but worked and evolved tirelessly, voluminously, his own most merciless critic. Mastery was forever around the next corner; dying at ninety, he wished for ten more years to become “a real artist.” Having gone through more than thirty artistic names, at the end he signed himself Gakyo Rojin, “the old man mad about drawing.” His notebooks show him sketching every subject conceivable; his erotic albums include, most memorably, a woman receiving oral sex from an octopus. His energy was so commanding it seemed set to outlive him: a haiku from his death bed read “Though as a ghost, / I shall lightly tread / the summer fields.”

Part of the restless energy of his landscapes is in the presence of people: pilgrims at the foot of a waterfall, people on foot or on horses or donkeys crossing a bridge, or with sheaves of paper being blown from their hands in a violent wind. In the more placid image of Fuji reflected in the lake at Misaka, there is still the small boat laden with goods; one can almost hear the slow rhythm of the oars. In his iconic image of “The Great Wave at Kanagawa” we notice first the huge clawed curl of the wave itself, and then the men huddled in the two tiny boats in its path, as if bowing in supplication. Even his flower prints have a delicate dance of profusion in them. And for all his variety, his distinctive, angular style makes him one of the most immediately recognizable of all the ukiyo-e artists.

Ando Hiroshige worked as a fireman, decorated for bravery while still a youth; this put him at the neighboring edges of the samurai class with the merchant and working classes. He was forty years Hokusai’s junior, but outlived him by only a decade. They both worked into the midpoint of Japan’s nineteenth century, when leisure and mobility were both on the upswing—what was called the “culture of movement” (kodo bunka). This provided the audience for their travel prints, and Hiroshige made has name with a series showing the Tokaido Road, the main route linking the old capital with the new. These, along with prints of the Kikosaido Road and of Edo itself, became the best known of his works, and one of the shops that produced them was cunningly situated on the way into or out of the city; souvenirs, anyone?

There is much else to his work—those splendid bird-and-flower prints, some occasional fish, the apprentice work in courtesans and actors, book illustration—and these are all worth pursuit and study; but Hiroshige must be one of the least problematic or difficult figures in the whole history of art. His scenes—with their gorgeous soft masses of color, ingeniously occluded compositions, and the endless busyness of his round-faced, genial crowds—are delightful, pretty, and as piquant as the scenes we catch from the windows of a moving train. We notice objects just as they edge out the sides or bottom of the composition. Henry D. Smith connects his kinetic quality with the “culture of movement” but also with the Tenpo crisis of the 1830’s, a period of famine, recession and political tension. I accept that on faith, but I tend to look at Hiroshige’s prints with the same avid absorption as the young man described by Thomas Bewick, to whom he’d given a copy of his History of Quadrupeds, seen sitting under a tree, as taken up as a child. Something of that miraculous rejuvenation takes place whenever we look at a Hiroshige print; it’s all so satisfying, so answering to our curiosity, so interesting. As the poet said: “It is all so simple.”

There are untold numbers of books about the history of the Japanese woodblock print, but rather fewer than you would expect on the individual artists. Matthi Forrer has recently done Hokusai (2018) and Hiroshige (2011) for Prestel, with intelligent texts and generous selections of illustration from the body of each artist’s work. James Michener’s edition of The Hokusai Sketchbooks (Tuttle, 1958)—Michener was an enthusiast, collector and scholar of ukiyo-e—is lovely but the devil to find cheaply; his edition has been superseded of late by Hokusai: Manga, edited by Taraoka Kazuya (Pie Books, 2011)—a bouncing, comic alphabet of humanity in all its frames and postures, with an endless variety of utensils, costumes, birds, demons, fish and flowers thrown in. I have some quibbles with the format—those large figures in Venetian red—but it’s glorious fun nonetheless.


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