Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

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Read 05/12/2015-31/12/2015

Rating: 5 stars

Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge

This is a beautifully put together art book. The design of the cover is captivating, and the traditional Japanese style binding a delight. The paper quality is excellent, with each page a double fold and the soft cover in what feels like a mulberry washi.

Melanie Trede’s introduction puts Hiroshige’s prints in their historical context of pictures of famous places (meisho-e) that date back to the 10th century and the poetry collection “One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each”. Trede explores the influence Hiroshige’s work had on painters like Whistler, Pissarro and Van Gogh, but also the influence that Western art techniques had on Hiroshige. Of more interest, perhaps, is the discussion of Hiroshige’s methodology and how his approach to recording Edo differed to that taken by Hokusai. The pictures weren’t just a record of Edo life but a means of promoting the city and creating a cultural narrative that appealed to residents and potential visitors alike. I was interested to learn about the prohibition on depicting Edo castle and other official buildings of the Shogun and how Hiroshige sometimes got around that restriction, even getting views that contained hints of the castle past the censors. Also on the censors’ hit list was anything that might place the shogunate in a bad light. Some ukiyo-e artists got into bother by depicting the devastation caused by the 1855 earthquake, but Hiroshige’s views are focused on the positive, showing the glories of a newly reconstructed and vibrant Edo after the earthquake, but contain hidden political allusions designed to circumvent the censors’ sensibilities. There is information on the publisher, Sakanaya, and a detailed description of the process from proof drawing to woodblock engraving to printing, in Trede’s introduction as well.

The book reproduces one of only a few surviving complete sets of views from the first print run. The set is held by the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo, a museum we haven’t visited yet, but which I now hope to include on a future trip to Tokyo. The reproductions glow on the page, with the full depth of colour that must exist in the originals. Trede is joined by Lorenz Bichler in writing the commentaries for each view, discussing the content of the print, its meaning and the craftsmanship involved in bringing each element of the image together.

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