Hiroshige's Tokaido Road exhibit featured at Carnegie museum
My enthusiasm about Japanese wood-block prints began in the mid-1950s when I spent 16 months in Japan in the service.
The genre is unique, and the landscapes by Utagawa Hiroshige are easily my favorite examples of it.
Recently my daughter Elizabeth and I attended a lecture sponsored by the Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania celebrating the opening of a new exhibition of prints from Hiroshige's most famous series, “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.” It is an outstanding example of the ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world).
Brenda Jordan, the director of the University of Pittsburgh national coordinating site for the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia, gave an interesting lecture describing the social, economic, and cultural environment in pre-industrial Japan which produced this specialized art form.
During the Edo Period, 1603 to 1868, the most important highway in Japan was the Tokaido Road, linking Kyoto, the imperial capital, and Edo (known today as Tokyo), the shogun's capital.
At 319 miles long, the trip could be made on foot in a little over a week, providing conditions were perfect. Fifty-three post stations were located along the route, somewhat like the stagecoach inns on early 19th century roads in this area — the Washington Pike, for example.
In 1832, Hiroshige made the trip from Edo to Kyoto as part of an official delegation from the shogun to the emperor, recording his impressions of the local scenes with sketches. He then produced the masterpiece that is the focus of this exhibit, 55 prints in all.
The prints in an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art are from the Hoeido edition, the initial issue. It is the first time the full set has been exhibited in 25 years. Several scenes are supplemented by prints of the same scene by other wood-block artists; others by versions of the same scene by Hiroshige.
The exhibit is full of my personal favorites, beginning with “Nihonbashi” and the travelers beginning their journey in Edo. “Numazu” has a full moon partially hidden by trees. “Kanbara, Night Snow” depicts the muffled silence of a winter night perfectly. “Shono, Travellers Surprised by Sudden Rain” is so vivid one can feel the impact of the deluge. “Ejiri” is a busy harbor with a fleet of square-sailed vessels stretching to the horizon.
“Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” was wildly successful; 20,000 sets were eventually printed. Although it brought fame to the artist, it was not accompanied by fortune. A new print sold for about the same price as a pair of straw sandals or a bowl of soup.
The development of this unique genre appears to have been driven by a broad-based culture sensitive to art and demanding a cost-effective way to reproduce it for the masses, in pre-industrial Japan. The rest of the world, and posterity, has benefited greatly as a result.
The exhibit will be at the Carnegie Museum of Art through July 8. Investing a couple of hours viewing it will give you an interesting look at life in Japan two centuries ago, as well as providing a very satisfying artistic experience.