Magazine article The Spectator

Japanese Master

Magazine article The Spectator

Japanese Master

Article excerpt

Walk into Monet's elegant diningroom at Giverny, and you will find Japanese prints on the walls. In the background of Manet's portrait of Emile Zola you will find the same. In the late 19th century, ownership of wood-block prints from Japan was a badge of membership of the avant-garde, rather as having a pickled sheep in your dining-room would be today. Therefore, one surmises, to Western eyes they must then have appeared shockingly, fascinatingly new. That is a little hard to believe, however, as one walks round the effortlessly enjoyable exhibition of prints by Hiroshige currently at the Royal Academy.

Indeed, there are exact prototypes on show here for many of the works of the 19th-century European avant-garde. A few years before Whistler painted a falling rocket in the night sky above the Thames, Hiroshige did the same in `Fireworks Over Ryogoku Bridge'. Van Gogh actually made copies of a couple of Hiroshige prints in this show.

So the aspects of Japanese prints that once seemed so novel -- tight cropping, the raking angles, the objects in looming close-up framing a distant scene, the bold simplification into telling silhouettes probably all seem more normal to the average gallery-goer today than, say, the convolutions of Mannerism or the Baroque.

Conversely - it is less widely realised Japanese artists of Hiroshige's period were becoming influenced by Western art. `View of a Canal in the Snow' of 1834-5, for example, finds him experimenting with a single point perspective which would have been utterly familiar to 15th-century Florentine painters such as Uccello. So Japanese prints of this period form a bridge between the taste of Orient and Occident. Just as we in the West, trained by van Gogh et aL, find Hiroshige and Hokusai easy to appreciate, so the Japanese find Impressionist and PostImpressionist art far easier to assimilate than other products of the West (witness their interest at auctions, and the corresponding dizzy height of prices).

This sense of familiarity may be deceptive. There are doubtless many aspects of Hiroshige's original meaning that are lost on us, especially on those of us who do not read Japanese. Often the prints are inscribed with poems, some of which are translated in the catalogue. But the contemporary and cultural resonance of geese flying across the moon or a temple precinct under snow are even more difficult to resurrect than those of the art of the European past. Japan, before Admiral Perry sailed in and forcibly opened it to the outside world, was a sealed and very remote place.

Still, Utagawa Hiroshige did for it, and especially for Edo its capital, what Canaletto did for 18th-century Venice. The bridges, the mountains with huge moons above them caught in the branches of a tree, the shrines, the paper lanterns, the plum blossom, the snow at New Year - all these add to a composite image of old Japan. It is hard now not to see it through Hiroshige's eyes.

With the older Hokusai, he was the great master of the Japanese landscape print. But, in comparison with Hokusai - or indeed by any standards - he was immensely prolific. He is known to have designed over 5,000 prints in a career that lasted some 40 years (he died in 1858 aged 62). Some of these were issued in editions of up to 50,000 - individual examples of which may look very different from each other.

The Japanese print was clearly a truly popular art, and - to a greater extent than equivalents in the West - the result of a team effort. …

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