25 December 2011

A Good Time to be an Ukiyo-e Fan in Tokyo

This is a particularly good time for Ukiyo-e lovers in Tokyo, since we have two exhibitions running (both in Roppongi):  a Hiroshige exhibit at Tokyo Midtown, and a spectaclar Kuniyoshi exhibit at Roppongi Hills.  Below are some comments on both.

"A Road Traveled by Feudal Lords and Pet Dogs: Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido" at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Midtown

The pieces that catapulted Utagawa Hiroshige to fame were his depictions of the 53 way stations along the road linking Tokyo and Kyoto in Edo-era Japan.  This exhibit centers on two complete editions of that collection, one the earlier Hoeido edition and the second the later Reisho edition.

"Edition" is probably not the correct word for these, since in fact they are not in any sense revised versions of each other.  Hiroshige simply produced a work by this title and theme twice in his lifetime, each time re-doing the images completely.  Comparing them side-by-side is mostly instructive in two ways:  first, it shows that the two work are really unrelated; and second, it shows the Hoeido edition is much more interesting from almost any viewpoint.  The artwork is better executed, the linework is more interesting, and the printers, especially in the early press runs of the Hoeido editions, were working much more closely in accord with Hiroshige's intentions (or at least, were exercising a lot more care in the printing).

For me, I really wondered why they even bothered to present the Reisho edition so exhaustively.  It's likely that the answer is because the Reisho edition is from the collection of the Suntory Museum of Art (the host institution), whereas the Hoeisho edition was kindly leant by the  Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art.  Reisho was the home team here, otherwise they might not as gotten as much airtime.

I got the audio tour (available in English or Japanese) for this exhibit, which I rarely do.  It probably made me take a little longer to get through the exhibition, but it definitely had some information I wouldn't have known, especially about the cultural references and self-promotional advertisements embedded in the series.  While every piece was labelled in both English and Japanese, the explanatory text next to each piece was mostly Japanese-only, so you might want to get the audio tour if your Kanji isn't up to snuff.

On the other hand, the audio kept waxing rhapsodic about the beauty of the prints and execution.  The truth is, I've never really felt that strongly about the beauty of Hiroshige prints; the reason I've always liked Hiroshige is because of his skill at gesture drawing and in particular at capturing the gestures of everyday people.  While they didn't talk about that much, the audio text did agree with me that the best piece of the series is the "Shower at Shono" image from the Hoeisho edition, seen below.  This is my favorite Hiroshige, and I own an original of it.  It really captures the rush and gesture of the folks running to get shelter from the rain, and the execution of the background trees in woodblock printing feels layered and alive.

There's a bit of other material in the exhibition, including some of the keep-the-relatives-out-of-hock paintings; Hiroshige is said to have done over 150 painting for his relatives to be used as payments or gifts to their creditors, since like many samurai retainer families they were seriously in debt to merchants during the late Edo period.

"Kuniyoshi: Spectacular Ukiyo-e Imagination" at the Mori Museum of Art, Roppongi Hills

A much more impressive exhibit has been assembled a few minutes' walk away at the Mori Museum or Art, presented a huge breadth of work from a contemporary of Hiroshige's, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (they were both affiliated with different branches of the Utagawa school).  While I greatly admire Hiroshige's gesture drawing, it's amazing to look at these two artists and think of them as contemporaries:  Kuniyoshi's work feels much more modern in its compositions (he frequently breaks the frames with his figures) and use of color (bold splashes of color like the piece above are common in his work).

Unlike the Hiroshige exhibit which focuses on a single title, the Kuniyoshi exhibit has a huge assortment of work from Kuniyoshi's career sorted by theme.  The first section is the heroic prints, next the famous places, etc.  This categorization reflects the major print genres which all of the working print artists of the time were expected to know and work between.

This opportunity to compare these two artists (I went to both exhibits on the same day, which is easy since they're 15 minutes' walk apart) really reinforced that Hiroshige's strengths were in his gesture drawing and naturalistic poses, whereas Kuniyoshi's strengths are in design, 2D posing, and depiction of faces.  The facial work, especially in the heroic prints of Kuniyoshi's, is dramatically more compelling than the typically symbolic faces in the Hiroshige drawings.

Another thing the direct contrast made clear is that it's really Kuniyoshi who's the visual inspiration for modern manga and anime.  The strong sense of design, the strong (but often unnatural) posing, and the stark colors are all reflected in modern Japanese anime.

I strongly urge anybody with any interest in manga, anime, or Ukiyo-e to get up to the 52nd floor of Roppongi Hills before the exhibit ends on February 12th!

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