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Hiroshige

Category: Artist and sculptor

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) was a Japanese ukiyo-e artist, and one of the last great artists in that tradition.  If you read the section on Shinto you will see that it is a style of art hugely influenced and based on the spiritual principles embodied in the religion. 

Hiroshige was a master of symbolism, and all his later pictures embody the extensive system used in Shinto to portray the spiritual world.  There is rain, there is snow, there are bridges, marshes, woods, mountains, all apparently landscapes, but of course they are in reality spiritual landscapes.  Although it can never be proved, I think Hiroshige may have been capable of out of body experiences as he was 'especially noted for using unusual vantage points' – in other words many of his views were painted from positions one cannot achieve without out of body flight [or a balloon!]  He also made numerous, seasonal allusions – the 4 seasons have the same meaning symbolically in Shinto as they do in the generic spiritual  path.  And he uses 'striking colours' - also symbolic.

He is therefore an extremely important Shinto spiritual painter.

He  took great care over the print making process as far as he could, to ensure that the spiritual aspects were adequately captured.  In 1856, working with the publisher Uoya Eikichi, he created a series of luxury edition prints, made with the finest printing techniques including true gradation of colour, the addition of mica to lend a unique iridescent effect, embossing, and the use of glue printing (wherein ink is mixed with glue for a glittery effect).  So as you can see his aim was to capture something of the jewel like luminosity of the spiritual world – again an indication that he had probably direct experience of this realm.

Hiroshige was born  just east of Edo Castle in the Yaesu area of Edo (present-day Tokyo). His father was Gen'emon, a hereditary retainer of the shogun.  Gen'emon and his family, along with 30 other samurai, lived in one of the 10 barracks in the castle.  Gen'emon and his wife died in 1809, when Hiroshige was 12 years old. Hiroshige lived in the barracks until the age of 43.   He did marry.  In 1839, Hiroshige's first wife, a woman from the Okabe family, died. Hiroshige re-married to O-yasu.

He had a natural aptitude for drawing even from childhood and produced an impressive painting in 1806 of a procession of delegates to the Shogun from the Ryukyu Islands, which was remarkably accomplished given his young age. He eventually embarked on an artist's apprenticeship with the noted Utagawa Toyohiro at the age of 15 in 1811.   But he seemed not to thrive in this environment.   He was made to paint actors and women – popular themes for public consumption and it was if his talent was being held back by his master. 

Hiroshige's first genuinely original publications came six years later in 1818. His Eight Views of Omi and Ten Famous Places in the Eastern Capital were moderately successful.   However, it was not until the death of Toyohiro that Hiroshige suddenly and dramaticaly started to paint works of genius.  Hiroshige's Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (1831)  attracted real public attention and was critically acclaimed for its composition and colours.

In 1832, Hiroshige was invited to join an embassy of Shogunal officials to the Imperial court.  Hiroshige joined the delegation. He carefully observed the Tokaido Road (or "Eastern Sea Route"), which wended its way along the shoreline, through a snowy mountain range, past Lake Biwa, and finally to Kyoto.  His paintings were issued as The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (1833–1834), and with them his success was assured.

According to the more literal minded - “These designs were drawn from Hiroshige's actual travels of the full distance of 490 kilometers. They included details of date, location, and anecdotes of his fellow travelers, and were immensely popular”

But were they?  Actual travels?  I am not so sure.  And I do not mean they were works of imagination either, he had been there, but how he travelled is another thing – the mind is a wonderful thing.

Hiroshige went on to produce more than 2000 different prints of Edo and post stations Tokaido, as well as series such as The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido (1834–1842) and Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1852–1858). Of his estimated total of 5000 designs, these landscapes comprised the largest proportion of any genre.

In his declining years, Hiroshige still produced thousands of prints to meet the demand for his works, but few were as good as those of his early and middle periods. He never lived in financial comfort, even in old age.

Where did he get his inspiration?  Shinto and Buddhism

In 1856, Hiroshige "retired from the world," becoming a Buddhist monk; this was the year he began his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. He died aged 62 during the great Edo cholera epidemic of 1858 and was buried in a Zen Buddhist temple in Asakusa. Just before his death, he left a poem:

"I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land."

The cardinal directions.

References

There is a good page with his Tryptychs although the symbolism isn't explained, you would need to reference the symbol section on this site.

The same site has a very complete collection of his works, some of which I have used to explain the symbolism - see this LINK.

 

Observations

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