Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Snow Country - Woodcuts of the Japanese Winter at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Nocturnal Snowfall on Kanbara - Hiroshige

The Snow Country exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints in the Shiba Room at the Fitzwilliam Museum over Christmas provided some beautifully chill seasonal scenes in an otherwise damp and drear Cambridge. It also highlighted the importance of weather and climate in Japanese art, and in the woodblock print in particular. Whether in spring’s pastel massing of cherry tree blossom, autumn’s burnished blaze or winter’s leaching of colour from the world, transforming it into shades of white and grey, the seasonal markings serve to locate the depiction of particular places within a particular climatic quadrant of the turning year. In much the same way, Haiku or other traditional forms of Japanese poetry include details which identify the time of year and establish a sense of place. Such observation of seasonal atmosphere also draws attention to the passing of time and the transient nature of each moment. Most of the pictures on display in the Fitzwilliam dated from the golden age of the Japanese woodblock print in the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries. It was a form which developed wholly within the span of the Edo Period (1600-1867). This was the age of the Shoguns, military rulers who controlled the country through a government known as a Bakufu, and who divided the country into feudal kingdoms. Edo became the capital of Japan at this time, a new city for a new era, with the Shogun’s palace located at its centre, surrounded by a moated lake. The Shogun’s palace was surrounded by a ring of grand residences in which the feudal lords and their retinues were obliged to spend a certain amount of time every other year in order to attend court. Somewhere beyond this aristocratic core, in typical downtown style, lay the Yoshiwara district, a pleasure quarter officially licensed by the government. It was here that the geisha, courtesans, kabuki actors, artists and sumo wrestlers gathered and performed. The rich cultural life which grew up in this area became known as ukiyo, or the floating world, a recognition of the fleeting nature of the pleasures it offered, and of the fact that it might move on elsewhere at any time. Indeed, it did of necessity in 1657, after a terrible fire which razed most of Edo to the ground. Yoshiwara became New Yoshiwara, suggesting that things would carry on in much the same way. The patrons of the new popular arts of the floating world tended to be the merchants, a class who were accumulating increasing wealth but were regarded as complete nobodies within the rigidly defined class divisions of the feudal society. Yoshiwara, and areas like it in other Japanese cities such as Rokujo Misuji-machi and the Gion geisha district in Kyoto, was where they went to spend their money and enjoy themselves in an environment relatively free of the strictures and controls of whichever Shogun was in power at the time.

Edo Nightlife - Hiroshige's Night View of Saruwakacho from 100 Views of Edo (1857)
The prints which depicted this world came to be known as ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world. The technique of producing multiple prints from one carved block made low-level mass production possible, making this an art which was affordable for a wide audience. The popular nature of its subject matter reflected this broad appeal. There are few pious religious scenes or noble depictions of historical triumphs here. Ukiyo-e tended more towards ‘star’ portraits of famous kabuki actors in their best known roles (a genre all to itself, known as Yakusha-e; portraits of geisha or other beautiful women (pin-ups, essentially) known as Bijin-ga; and depictions of familiar places in Edo or beyond (a form of souvenir postcard). There are also some prints in the exhibition from the later nineteenth century, dating from the Meiji period which began in 1868, the year in which Imperial power was restored, replacing the Shogun Bakufu which had held sway for some 250 years. It was a period which saw the opening up of the Japanese economy to Western trade after centuries of isolation. This was hardly a matter of choice for the Japanese government. It became evident that it was a course which had to be taken in the wake of the unsubtle diplomatic visit of US Commodore Matthew Perry with his accompanying armoured steamships in 1853. The sudden reconnection with the wider world also resulted in the conscious adoption by the new Imperial power of a Western outlook in terms of economic and political philosophy, which was increasingly reflected in the art and culture of the time, as later prints in the exhibition testify.

Japonisme - Van Gogh's copy of Hiroshige's Okashi Bridge - Sudden Shower Near Atake from the 100 Views of Edo
Taguchi Beisuku’s 1895 print Braving Heavy Snow – A Japanese Officer Scouts Enemy Territory, depicting a scene from the Sino-Japanese War, for example, could almost be a panel from a Tintin book. Its naturalistic view of its horseback military subjects and the direct representation of the icy wind through sweeping lines of blown snow largely reject the stylisation typical of woodblock prints from the first half of the century and before. Weather would have been suggested through the hunching over of small figures (in the style of the classic ‘struggling against the wind’ mime routine) or the bending of a stand of trees or bamboo. Similarly, Ogata Gekkko’s the Sleeping-Dragon Plum Tree at Kameido, again from 1895, has a much more naturalistic depiction of its two female subjects and the landscape through which they walk, the latter drawing on European watercolour traditions. At the same time as these transformations were taking place, Japanese artforms were having a significant impact in the West, with exhibitions in London in 1862 (comprising objects from the collection of Sir Rutherford Alcock, Britain’s first diplomatic representative in Japan) and at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 providing a heady introduction to European audiences. This led to a fashion for all things Japanese, and for the adoption of elements of Japanese style into western art and design. The art critic Philippe Burtry coined the term Japonisme in 1872 to illustrate this trend. Artists like Monet, Whistler and Van Gogh were hugely enthusiastic about ukiyo-e prints, and those of Hiroshige in particular. The simple but expressively outlined depictions of people and places and the carefully balanced use of a limited range of bold colours, as well as the formal stylisation greatly influenced developments in their own work, and thereby in the development of western art as a whole. The fact that the West’s discovery of the riches of Japanese art should come about through a political imperative to open up global trade which would in its own turn compromise that very uniqueness and aesthetic self-containment which had led to its development is one of history’s many little ironies. The uncovering and exposure of these treasures established the conditions for their subsequent diminishment.

Ki No Tomonori - Suzuki Harunobo (1767-8)
The earliest picture here, Suzuki Harunobo’s Ki No Tomonori from 1767-8, shows the ukiyo-e at its most stylised, in a composition in which sinuous lines predominate. Harunobo was one of the best known and most celebrated artists of his day, and was central to the development of colour in the woodblock print (colour prints becoming known as Nishiki-e). He depicts the river with flattened lack of perspective, a rippled ribbon of fabric contoured with undulating lines of varying length, running roughly parallel and conveying a sense of rapid and complex flow. Sharply peaked waveforms at the top suggest a churning turbulence, which is in complete contrast with the serene and poised female figures in the foreground. All of these impressions are achieved with a simple spareness of form. The stylised effect is furthered by the use of raised relief lines on the paper which follow the contours of the riverrine flow, adding a further textural dimension. Such embossed relief patterns were made using a technique known as kimedashi or kimekomi, in which the paper was first pressed onto the uninked woodblock on which raised lines had been left exposed by the carver, and an impression made on the relevant area. It was often used to highlight the pattern designs or outlines of kimonos. The two figures in Harunobo’s picture both wear long kimonos. In the Bijin-ga pictures of beautiful women, kimonos descend to the ground in a few elegantly sinuous lines, evoking languorous, elegant poses and a general sensual curvaceousness. It’s easy to see the influence of such long, expressive lines on Aubrey Beardsley’s fin-de-siecle illustrations for the likes of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

Kabuki Actors Segawa Kikunojô V and Bandô Mitsugorô III - Utagawa Kuniyasu (1826)
An 1826 print by Utagawa Kuniyasu provides a good example of the actor print, the Yakusha-e. Kabuki actors were real celebrities in the floating world, famed for particular roles with which they became identified. The title of Kuniyasu’s print, Kabuki Actors Segawa Kikunojô V and Bandô Mitsugorô III, identifies the stars, and would have provided a dramatic souvenir for the theatregoer; a film still before the fact. Snow scenes in kabuki plays were created through a combination of painted backdrops and, when required, flurries of torn up pieces of white paper to represent snowfall. These often formed a suitable dramatic setting for action scenes, as depicted by Kuniyasu here. The two characters engage in mortal combat, sword taking on heavy chain with weighted balls at its end. A spattering of white paint thrown across the two figures is suggestive of a spray of bleached blood. It makes the combat resemble a particularly intense snowball fight as much as a duel with deadlier weapons. The flicking of paint across the surface of the paper anticipates the action art more than a century in the future. The implied downward thrust of the brush lends a feel of violent motion which is entirely appropriate for the nature of the scene depicted. There’s another kabuki print, an atypical work by Ando Hiroshige, better known for his hugely popular landscapes. This one gives a more widescreen view which encompasses the entire stage, showing the different layers of chaotic action. It’s the culminating act of the famous historical play Chushingura, in which 47 Ronin (Samurai without a lord) avenge the death of their master. So well known is the play that it was even used as the title of a short electronic piece by Spencer Dryden on the Jefferson Airplane LP Crown of Creation. Hiroshige’s figures, seen in the middle distance and background, are drawn in the manner of characterful manga sketches. Manga was originally a word for study sketches of people, animals, landscapes or other subjects, although it’s now better known as a general description for the comics which are such a prevalent part of contemporary Japanese culture, and (less accurately) for the animated films which derive from them. Hokusai’s books of manga character sketches, the first of which was published in 1814, were another significant influence on Western artists in the latter part of the nineteenth century, demonstrating as they did the variety of ways in which nuances of character and appearance could be suggested in a few simple lines. In Hiroshige’s kabuki print, the postures of the manga-like characters convey a confusion of madly dashing action, a panicky middle of the night rush to defend against a surprise incursion into the sleeping compound of the Lord Muronao’s castle. A tiny smudge of red in the middle distance gives evidence of the violent struggle going on all around, an emblematic splash of blood on snow. Above it all, the full moon floats serene and calm, coolly surveying the melee below with distanced indifference.

Winter – Shinobazu Pond - Utagawa Kunisada (1858)
Other prints contrast warm interiors with the wintry world beyond. Utagawa Kunisada’s Winter – Shinobazu Pond from 1858 (a print designed to decorate a non-folding fan) has a geisha playing a shamisen (a lute which produces sharp, twanging notes like a louder and less metallic banjo) whilst the snow drifts down outside. Perhaps the snowflakes fall in unison with the firmly plucked notes which she produces. The island shrine in the centre of the lake creates an impression of isolation and tranquillity, a place apart from the busy noise of the city. Formally, the picture is full of diagonals. The screen which frames the lake and island is a grid set at a diagonal tilt, and the long neck of the shamisen forms another diagonal line, offset at a slight angle to the screen, creating a diverting variance from the prevailing symmetry. Keisei Eisen’s Overnight Snow in Yoshiwara from 1825 contrasts the cosiness of the interior of a courtesan’s room with the frozen cold of the exterior. The warm colours of the courtesan’s kimono pool around her solicitously kneeling figure whilst she brews up a kettle over the coals in an iron brazier. The snow-covered district outside through which people hurry with their bamboo umbrellas is framed in a circular window, like a landscape print within the print. Utgawa Kuniteru’s 1840 print Rolling a Snowball shows that fun can be had outside too, its scene of children at play designed to appeal to sentimental parents and grandparents. The group of children is building a snow rabbit, demonstrating that where snow settles, wherever it happens to be in the world, it will always be used as a material to sculpt something or other. Other children have lifted circular sheets of ice which had plugged barrels or ponds and have suspended them to use as gongs, producing shivery reverberations.

The form of ukiyo-e which really rose to prominence in the nineteenth century, and which proved particularly popular in the West, was the landscape print. These were perfected first by Katsushika Hokusai and then by Ando Hiroshige. Hokusai is represented in the exhibition by three prints. Poet Travelling in Snow from 1833 has the titular subject sitting on horseback on a promontory extending out into a lake, which almost looks like it could be precariously hanging over empty space. He gazes up at a tree which bends over the water’s edge under the weight of snow, a weary arch echoed by the horse’s bowed neck. The birds on the water beneath the arching branch look like a last few falling petals of blossom. The yellow tints to the snow suggest a slightly jaundiced light, and the whole picture is suffused with a sense of age and tiredness. We sense from his air of absorbed contemplation that the poet is composing lines about the scene in his head. Minamoto no Muneyuki Ason from 1835 has a group of hunters wrapped in assorted layers of clothing gathering around a fire. Its plume of smoke is rendered in wavering, raked outlines which make it look like an evanescent river in the air. The upward diagonal of its passage traces the prevailing direction of the night breezes. The men both lean away from the rosy flames and hold their hands towards them, conveying the intensity of both heat and cold, and the attempt to find a situation at some comfortable interface. A certain metaphorical element is evident, which is furthered by the fact that they’re standing outside of an abandoned, dilapidated hut, in which an old pot still hangs over a fireplace long since gone cold. The transience and mutability of life is once more an underlying theme.

Evening Snow at Ryogoku - Katsushika Hokusai (1833)
Evening Snow at Ryogoku from 1833 finds Hokusai at his most stylised, verging here on a semi-abstract form. The Ryogoku area of Edo, with its famous bridge, is seen from a bird’s eye viewpoint, a convention drawing on Chinese painting traditions. Ryogoku Bridge is thronged with a crowd crossing the river, depicted as a compressed series of interconnecting ovals – the brims of straw hats and the canopies of umbrellas. Its conglomeration of round shapes is reminiscent of the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent in which a swarm of obstructing umbrellas descends the steps outside a building, shot from above. Lobate lozenges of fog cloud are laid across the rooftops like cut-out strips of paper, and there is a twining border incorporated into the print which resembles a pop art version of Celtic knotwork. The whole has very 70s poster feel, with its plumply rounded graphic style. It looks far more like the product of the twentieth that the early nineteenth century.

Kameyama – Clear Weather After Snow - Hiroshige
Hiroshige is the artist who dominates the exhibition, and who brought the landscape print to new levels of sophistication. He was also extremely popular from an early point in his artistic career, his travelogue series 53 Stations on the Tokaido Road (there are actually 72 prints) from 1833 being a massive bestseller. The Tokaido Road linked Edo with Kyoto, and was the route which local lords (or Daimyo) and their retinues would take when they came to the Shogun’s court. But it would also have been familiar to merchants and pilgrims to Kyoto’s shrines, and Hiroshige’s atmospheric and often humourous scenes would conjure up personal memories in those who bought them. There are two of the 53 Stations prints here. Number 16, Nocturnal Snowfall on Kanbara (scroll up to the top), sets subtle shades and gradations of grey against the white of the paper, with the farther mountains in the background blushed with an icy blue to emphasise their chill grandeur and distance. The snow cover softens sharp edges, making roofs and mountains seem slightly inflated and bulbous. The figures trudging towards the village provide muted elements of colour and sluggish motion against the surrounding stillness. Their hunched forms say much about the freezing temperatures and the biting cold wind from which one of them protects himself by wrapping his head within the protective cone of his folded straw umbrella. Number 47, Kameyama – Clear Weather After Snow has a diagonal compositional form, mountain slopes sweeping upwards across the frame until they reach the outer wall of Kameyama Castle, at which point the angle of the curve ascends sharply. It’s as if the castle wall is some final rocky outcrop marking the summit of the mountain. The retinue climbing towards the wall is glimpsed behind the tree and snowline, nearly swallowed up by the landscape and identifiable mainly through the oval shapes of their hats and the rectangle of the sedan they carry. The insignificant dots of colour they introduce into the monochrome surroundings are magnified in the washes of rose, yellow and blue which tint the sky with the promise of sunrise. Geometrical clusters of demi-hexagons at the bottom left form a hive which indicates the roofs of village houses. But they could almost be a range of distant mountain tops, which would put this castle at rarefied, celestial heights, the retinue at the end of a very long and weary ascent.

Evening Snow on Hira Mountains (1834) - Hiroshige
Evening Snow on Hira Mountains from 1834 has a massing of mountain peaks rising to the right of the frame, shaded in deepening densities of grey. Their craggy edges are softened by snow, and the whole range looks as if a sheet has been thrown over it, or as if it has been wrapped by some nineteenth century Japanese equivalent of the environmental installation artists Christo and Jean-Claude. A sense of receding perspective is achieved by leaving a mountain in the mid-distance unshaded with the prevailing greys, and depicting a far off range without the use of any solid, drawn outline. The white of the paper is left as a ghostly void between earth and sky, mountains which look like clouds (or vice versa), shrouded in an evanescent, ethereal obscurity lent by fading light and frozen, misty air. The turquoise blue of the lake in the bottom right of the frame provides a striking intrusion of colour into what is an otherwise grey world. Hiroshige produced a number of series of prints depicting scenes around his home city of Edo. Evening Snow At Asuka Hill is from his 1837-8 set 8 Views of the Environs of Edo. Once again it uses a chiaroscuro wash of grey to create a chill, wintry ambience. A hint of the woodblock’s grain shows through in the sky, suggesting the gusts of wind swirling the snow through the evening air. The bare branches of the cherry trees on the slope, whose blossoming is so synonymous with springtime, only serve to emphasises the bleak lifelessness of the season, but also hold out the promise of future renewal and rebirth.

Gion in Snow (1834) - Hiroshige
Gion in Snow from 1834 comes from his Famous Views of Kyoto series, and shows a group of geishas entering a shrine marked by the pi sign of a Torii gate. The gate is cut off at the top of the frame, which is divided diagonally (in a manner characteristic of many ukiyo-e prints) by the cool metallic blue of the fence which marks the border of the shrine’s territory. The geishas wear the raised sandals known as ‘geta’ (as do many of the figures in the exhibition’s pictures) which are particularly useful for negotiating the snowy ground. They’ve created a scattering of birdlike prints in the snow, a patterning suggestive of play, aimless wandering and sociable loitering. Gion, whose buildings are seen beyond the gate, was a well-known geisha district in Kyoto, and the gateway here marks the meeting point of the sacred and profane, the worlds of vivacious pleasure and solemn contemplation. The geishas passing through the gate suggest that the two worlds are not mutually exclusive, the border between them permeable. Ukiyo-e prints could go through many pressings if they proved popular (as Hiroshige’s invariably were). The first was generally a run of about 100. Later editions often exhibited a lessening in quality as the artist no longer collaborated directly with the etcher and the inker, and the woodblock itself grew worn or damaged. The Gion in Snow print in the exhibition was from a later edition, as can be seen from the crack in the roof resulting from a chip in the block. It has the fortuitous effect of giving the appearance of a gap in the snow cover where a small block has avalanched over the edge of the eaves.

Fukujawa Timber Yards (1857) - Hiroshige
Hiroshige’s prints reached new heights of formal innovation and imaginative vision towards the end of his life (he died in 1858 during a cholera epidemic which swept across Edo through the summer and into the autumn), as if he intuited that time might be short. His 100 Views of Edo (actually significantly more in number) from 1857 shows scenes from the life in the capital through a variety of striking perspectives, many of which have an almost cinematic sweep. They may indeed have been influenced by photography, which had arrived in Japan from Europe after the opening up of its borders. There’s certainly a new emphasis on the framing of the picture, and the unconventionally prominent placing of certain elements in the foreground. Number 112 in the Edo series, Atagoshita and Yabulani, contrasts the straight lines of the buildings on the left border with the snow-frosted bamboo reaching out from the right hand border with a branching, organic disregard for a rigid, compact symmetry. The canal running down the middle has a deeper blue thread in its central channel suggesting both coldness, swift currents and depth. There’s a vivid use of colour contrasting with the snowy whiteness: in the green clothes of the people walking by the canal, which echoes the evergreen shades of the bamboo stalks and leaves on the other side; in the varying blue shades of the water; and in shrine gatehouse in the background, whose warm red façade seems to defy the snow to settle. Number 106 in the series, Fukujawa Timber Yards, is a study in straight lines, both diagonal and parallel to the plane, of differing and broken length. It’s a composition only a few steps from the abstractions of the vorticists, celebrating the mechanised technologies of the early twentieth century. But Hiroshige offsets the straight lines with the rounded ones of the umbrella’s oval in the foreground and the bridge’s arc in the back, as well as the branching organic forms of the trees along the water’s edge, one of which is speared through by a bundle of timber. These make it clear that it is human agency which has chopped and ordered natural form into such simple, splintered geometries. The broken lengths of the timber slanting across the frame seems to connect earth with sky, and Hiroshige includes creatures from both elements at either end: Sparrows, which are possibly about to use the inviting the jutting ends of the planks as a convenient perch; and the small pug dogs playing in the snow. Both pairs of creatures seem wholly oblivious of each other, worlds apart.

Fukugawa, Susaki and Jumantsubo from the 100 Views of Edo - Hiroshige
Fukugawa, Susaki and Jumantsubo, number 107 in the 100 Views of Edo series, takes the idea of the bird’s eye view and makes it literal. The white circle of the eagle’s eye looks down on the landscape with godlike omniscience, and the scything arcs of its wings form a bracketing border embracing the upper part of the frame, leaving just enough space in the top right hand corner to fit in the cartouches common to all ukiyo-e. The span of its wing on the right side seems poised to sweep the landscape, lying small below, aside, clearing space for some new creative endeavour. Perhaps it stands for the artist’s brush, his ability to create and recreate the world anew. The double downward arches of the eagle’s wingspan form an inverted mirror image of the smaller contours of the largest of the mountain peaks below, adding to the powerful aspect of this mighty bird. The staves of a single barrel bobbing in the water share the colour of the eagle’s brown plumage, its insignificant, isolated form a small detail linking the elements of water and air. Perhaps its progress is what the eagle has its eye on, its fishy contents offering easy pickings. The marshy landscape between water and sky is created with economical strokes and minimal outlines at its edge, suggesting an intermediate area with no clear point of delineation distinguishing it from the bay it borders. The demi-hexagons used as a shorthand for distant agglomerations of rooftops are a characteristic device which recurs from the Clear Winter Morning in Kamayama print from the 53 Stations of the Tokaido some 24 years earlier. With the straight-lined trees looking strangely like stands of transmitters or clusters and trails of pylons, these could almost be imagined to be the outlines of futuristic domes protecting self-contained environments.

Mountain and River on the Kiso Road (1857) - Hiroshige
Perhaps the most impressive and large scale work on display in the Shiba Room was the three-panel print Mountain and River on the Kiso Road from the Snow, Moon and Flowers series of 1857. This late trilogy of majestic landscapes set out to evoke the atmospheres of winter (snow, of course), autumn (the moon) and spring (the flowers). The latter were represented obliquely through a swirling bed of floral whirlpools troubling the Pacific surface. All three are like miniature, self-contained worlds which invite contemplative exploration. The snowbound Kiso Road landscape depicts a stretch of hills whose folds and valleys are parted by rivers and waterfalls, joined by flimsy bridges, inhabited by precariously perched huts, bristled with spiky trees, and threaded with stepped passes and precipice paths traversed by tiny hiking figures. The smoothly humped contours of the hills make them look like the backs of sleeping leviathans waiting for a time when they can reawake, stretch and shake off all these pests and minor irritants. The streams and rivers are depicted in all their aqueous moods – calmly flowing, falling in sheer white noise cataracts and roiling in turbulent, eddying whorls. The whole landscape has an overarching feeling of stillness and silence, a removed air once more enhanced by the hovering perspective of the bird’s eye viewpoint. From up here, everything looks small, but not insignificant. Rather, the interconnection of the different elements of the landscape, both natural and manmade, become apparent, and humanity takes its place within the overall balance of the composition, of the world.

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