Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Utagawa Hiroshige: Precursor to Modern Art

While this blog focuses mainly upon contemporary printmakers, I have selected a great master of the East, Utagawa Hiroshige a.k.a. Andō Hiroshige, to address his fine work but to also credit his impact upon the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, which as we all know has deeply impacted contemporary art. Hiroshige has been widely considered one of the last great masters of the ukiyo-e printmaking tradition. His legacy has been felt far and wide; the subject of his work differing slightly from his colleagues to emphasize landscapes and nature.
Hiroshige was born in Edo (modern day Tokyo) in 1797. He came from a samurai legacy, being the great-grandson of Tanaka Tokuemon, who held a position of power under the Tsugaru clan in the northern province of Mutsu. Hiroshige's grandfather was an archery instructor, and his father was adopted into the family of Andō Jūemon.

Hiroshige changed his name several times early in his life and we find he used the names Jūemon, Tokubē, and Tetsuzō. He had three sisters, one of whom died when he was a child. His mother and father both died when Hiroshige was only 12. He inherited his father’s fire warden duties and he was charged with prevention of fires at Edo Castle, a duty that left him much leisure time to pursue his interest in art.

Hiroshige—then using the name Tokutarō— began painting at the age of fourteen. He went to study at the Utagawa school, and later at the following schools: Kano, Chinese Southern ,Shiho and uki-e.
Hiroshige began his career by apprenticing on book illustrations and single-sheet ukiyo-e prints. In 1823, he resigned his post as fire warden, though still acting as an alternate, and he turned his firefighter position over to his brother, Tetsuzo, who in turn passed the duty over to Hiroshige's son in 1832.
He declined an offer to succeed his master teacher but became a member of the Utagawa school, along with the artists Kunisada and Kuniyoshi. The school was particularly known for their actor and historical prints but Hiroshige’s work was especially noteworthy for his choice of unusual vantage points and striking colors.

As for two of Hiroshige’s students, his daughter, Otatsu, married Chinpei Suzuki, also known as Hiroshige II, and later she married Shigemasa, who is known today as Hiroshige III. Both Hiroshige II and Hiroshige III worked in a style based upon that of Hiroshige, but neither achieved his level of success. Some of Hiroshige’s other students included Utagawa Shigemaru, Utagawa Shigekiyo, and Utagawa Hirokage.
Unlike western artists who produce a single image in editions, Hiroshige produced multiple image in a series. Their delicacy of color and subtlety of line honor the subject and we as viewers feel the season that the artist was portraying. We can smell his springtime blossoms on a tree, feel the gentle summer rains and hear the soft fall of snowflakes. In 1829 Hiroshige began to produce the first of his numerous print series, specializing in landscape, Kacho-e style bird and flowers prints. His series go as follows:
1829-30 The Eight Views of Ōmi
1831 Ten Famous Places in the Eastern Capital
The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō
1832 The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō
1834 Illustrated Places of Naniwa
1835 Famous Places of Kyoto
1834 Eight Views of Ōmi
1838 Eight Views of the Edo Environs
1848 One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
During Hiroshige’s time, printmaking was popular, and collectors quickly developed large collections, yet despite his popularity, Hiroshige never became wealthy from his work, even though he produced over 8,000 prints! He dominated printmaking with his unique brand of intimate, almost small-scale works. His travel prints generally depict people in all types of weather making their journeys and stops along famous routes.
Hiroshige's work ultimately had a marked influence on French artists such as Monet, van Gogh, Bilibin, Cézanne and Whistler. He was not the eccentric genius of Hokusai, but he wielded an enormous influence upon the western artists’ way of seeing, and helped to change the way western art dealt with composition.
After two marriages and having a family, Hiroshige "retired from the world," in 1856 to become a Buddhist monk. He died two years later during the great Edo cholera epidemic of 1858, although it is unclear as to whether the epidemic was the actual cause of his death. He was buried in a Zen Buddhist temple in Asakusa and before his death, he left this poem:
"I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land."

To this day Hiroshige remains the most beloved of all Japanese printmakers, but artists from the Impressionists to the Modern period also owe a debt to his influence.

1 comment:

  1. A very moving article - well written and sweet portrayal of his life and influence. Thank you for allowing me the chance to revisit Hiroshige's works (it has been a few years) and to see them with new respect. I found it very interesting to read that he entered the monastic life toward the end...although I suppose the isolation, concentration and meditation required to be a such prolific printmaker would certainly prepare anyone for the Zen lifestyle...