THE COLOUR-PRINTS OF HIROSHIGE - EDWARD F. STRANGE
HIROSHIGE AND WESTERN ART
No Japanese artist has exercised so direct an influence on the modern art of Europe and America as Hiroshige. Hokusai evokes the warmest admiration in our painters; but none has tried to tread in his footsteps. One may see more than a trace of the manner and methods of Utamaro in Beardsley and his little school of imitators - in the slender, exquisite line curving voluptuously to express the very quintessence of sensuality. But, so far as we were concerned, the tale was soon told, and hardly an echo of it remains. It has been far otherwise with the characteristic art of Hiroshige. When he - or another - wrote the little poem that appears on his memorial picture, his words held an unimagined truth. Hiroshige has veritably come to the West. His spirit, working in our painters and designers, has taught them indeed to view our scenery in a new light. We take the verse, as Noguchi writes, with “Western seriousness.” It is not so much that he and his work have been “interpreted and reconstructed by a new understanding,” as that he has opened the door to new interpretations and reconstructions of our own art. In this untrodden path Whistler led the way ; and it is therefore to the consideration of Hiroshige's influence on that very great pioneer that we must first give attention.
In 1858, the year of Hiroshige's death, Whistler was in Paris and published his first etchings, the “French Set” In or about that year also he painted “At the Piano,” and shocked the critics by much of that beauty of arrangement and spacing he was said, later, to have learned from the Japanese. But Hiroshige does not come into the story, as generally told, till far later. It was not until 1872 that Whistler began his series of Nocturnes. Mr. Joseph Pennell, an acute and enthusiastic critic, has a few words on this series which we may venture to quote. He says (in his admirable “Life” of the great American artist):
“Whistler was the first to paint the night. The blue mystery that veils the world from dusk to dawn is in the colour- prints of Hiroshige. But the woodblock cannot give the depth of the darkness, the medium makes a convention of the colour. Hiroshige saw and felt the beauty, and invented a wonderful scheme by which to suggest it on the block, but he could not render the night as Whistler rendered it on canvas.”
It would have been more accurate to say that Hiroshige did not do so; and a wider acquaintance with Hiroshige's work might have modified Mr. Pennell's views as to Hiroshige's night scenes. But on the main point we are in agreement, even up to Mr. Pennell's categorical assertion that “Whistler never imitated the Japanese in their technique.” He may have absorbed a hint or two in regard - as Mr. Pennell points out - to minor details, perhaps even more than that writer admits in respect of composition, particularly the high point of view. But all the time the comparison is between things not in the same category; and, personally, the present writer sees only superficial resemblances in execution.
Of course, the direct challenge is in the famous “Nocturne, Blue and Gold - Battersea Bridge.” The old wooden bridges of Japan supplied Hiroshige with many subjects. He gives them to us in almost every possible aspect ; and notably at night, in moonlight or with falling fireworks (the “Falling Rocket” was another of Whistler's Nocturnes). His treatment of silvery moonlight perhaps comes nearest to that of Whistler in the exquisite “Nagakubo” (No. 28 in the Kisokaido series). But there is no evidence that Whistler had seen very much of Hiroshige's work at a date when few people in the West knew anything about Japanese art or colourprints in general, or Hiroshige in particular. Rossetti, we know, acquired some in Paris about the years 1862 and 1863. The author has seen them, for they passed as a whole into the hands of the late W. M. Rossetti, who was kind enough to afford an opportunity for examination. They were mainly 3-sheet battle-pieces and illustrations of legends by Kuniyoshi and his pupils; with a very few landscapes by Hiroshige from “The Hundred Views of Yedo” and series of that period. The late Mr. Thomas Armstrong, who was in Paris about the same time; then made his first acquaintance with them, and, no doubt, Whistler shared in the new discovery. Indeed, in “The Gold Screen” - one of the pseudo-oriental group painted in Chelsea in 1863-1865 - he actually reproduces a print from the “More than Sixty Provinces” series. But the prints he cherished through all the vicissitudes of his stormy life, which were in his possession when he died, did not include a single landscape. They were mainly by Kiyonaga, and all by artists of that period and in that manner.
Beyond the similarity of subject, the “Old Battersea Bridge” has nothing in common with Hiroshige's work that might not have been arrived at by an artist of similar tendencies and independence of the traditions of his environment. There is no question of “influence”; but much kinship in essentials. Whistler - again to quote Mr. Pennell – “never gave up, he developed rather, what he always spoke of as the Japanese theory of drawing . . . . Few painters understood better than he did the art of selection, and here again Hiroshige and the other Japanese had been of use to him. He went to Nature for the suggestion, the motive.” Again, “The long nights of observation on the river were followed by long days of experiment in the studio”; and, in the notorious trial, one of the ridiculous points alleged against him was that he only took two days to paint his masterpiece! Mr. Pennell is absolutely right on all but one detail - a thing which really does not matter. For one may be permitted to doubt whether Whistler knew, till long after he had arrived at his way of working, that it was, in essentials, the same as that of Hiroshige. The case seems one of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
However, one must, and cheerfully, give Whistler the credit of having been the interpreter to the West of artistic principles that, anyhow, were those of Hiroshige. The results need not be expounded in detail. Indeed, it were difficult to do justice to the far- reaching and potent effect of the new vision opened to us by these two great men. Since the colour- prints have been known to artists generally, their direct influence cannot be denied.
On a lower plane of art, one of the most conspicuous instances of the application to Western uses of the root principles, if not quite of the technical methods, of the Japanese colour- printers is to be found in the modern development of the poster. This influence was displayed first of all in figure- subjects, and France led the way ; for the early posters of Steinlen, Balluriau, lbels, Grasset, and Toulouse- Lautrec had much of the clear and dramatic statement of subject, in terms of definite outline and flat planes of colour, which are characteristic of the Ukiyoye work generally. Perhaps the earliest poster of note in England which can be referred to the same source is the remarkable advertisement of Mr. Shaw's Arms and the Man made for its first production at the Avenue Theatre by Aubrey Beardsley. This must be placed among the pioneer work of the great advance that has since taken place in the artistic merits of our posters; a movement which was further promoted by the admirable work of the Beggarstaff Brothers (Messrs. James Pryde and William Nicholson), Dudley Hardy, and Mr. Hassall. We cannot claim these as coming specifically within the sphere of influence of Hiroshige; but later productions, and notably the remarkable series published under the auspices of Mr. Frank Pick, for the Underground Railways, contain many examples of a successful treatment of landscape, in which the spirit of Hiroshige is manifest. The outburst of this sort of advertisement in which other railway companies have indulged during the last year or so, is also to be considered in this category; so far as regards those (and the best of them) which are not merely feeble versions of formal painting. Hiroshige has taught at least some of our poster designers the virtue of simplicity; and how to select the essential features of a great landscape and interpret them in terms easily to be understood by the people. His fine vision and essential poetry constitute the hall- mark of his own great individuality, and are not shared by any imitator or student. We have, unhappily, nothing to correspond with the rich symbolism and traditional philosophy and allusiveness with which the presentment of a Japanese landscape, by a great Japanese artist, is replete. But, at least, we have been able to learn a lesson, by no means of little value, and thereby to brighten our dingy stations and hoardings in a way of thirty years ago. To Hiroshige we owe the scenes of sea- coast and mountain and picturesque countryside that play so large a part nowadays in our poster- panorama. But I think that no one yet has dared to advertise a rainy day.
The curious thing is that the Japanese rarely advertised in this manner. Hiroshige himself made a few prints as advertisements but not, we think, as posters. The Japanese theatre poster- many examples of which he certainly executed - was a large painting or writing: in the former case, crude in design and coarse in technique; in the latter, often with that intrinsic beauty which belongs to Japanese and Chinese calligraphy and arranged with the natural taste which seems to be inseparable therefrom. But Hiroshige was not a skilled writer, and we can ascribe to him no share in this kind of artistic achievement.
In another direction, his influence was more immediately exerted on a modern movement of considerable importance, which seems now to be well established, namely, the making of colour- prints by Western artists in a technical method practically identical with that of the Japanese. In this country the pioneers of a remarkably interesting and successful experiment were Mr. J. D. Batten and Professor Morley Fletcher, working together; who, after surmounting many difficulties, at last prevailed so far as to give us some good colour- prints which not only have considerable merit of their own, but were a source of inspiration to many students eager to attempt a method of wood- cut printing capable - as proved by the Japanese - of most beautiful results. Messrs. Batten and Morley Fletcher, it should be recorded, worked without the assistance of Japanese instructors, and even, at the outset, with no more help than could be derived from the first published account of the process, published in the transactions of the Smithsonian Institute by Mr. Tokuno, and reprinted in an early number of The Studio. The somewhat more detailed description published by the author in Japanese Illustration, and the writings of Professor William Anderson, and Professor Rein, comprised the body of information then available. However, the seed was sown, and the technical exhibit of a complete set of blocks, each with a proof, tools, and materials, arranged by the author in the Department of Engraving, Illustration, and Design, of the Victoria and Albert Museum, made the path easier for the increasing number of artists inclined towards the venture.
On the Continent Mr. Emil Orlik, of Prague, was one of the first and most capable of the leaders of the new movement. He learnt his method in Japan; and we believe that Frau Brinckmann (Fräulein Minna Hahn), of Hamburg, also had the benefit of Japanese instruction in her own country. Good work has since been done in France and in the United States; and there is now a considerable body of artists engaged, more or less, in producing creditable prints from wood- blocks in the Japanese manner. Mr. William Giles, one of the most ingenious and persevering of them, has not been content to restrict himself in this respect, and has devised technical methods of his own, from the original starting point, of great value and interest, and involving the use of metal plates. But probably not one of these would deny a great debt due to Hiroshige. He taught his Western disciples to see landscape and flowers in terms of the colourprint. It cannot yet be said that any one of them has come within measurable distance of his own supreme position. Not so easily can a tyro perfect himself in craftsmanship such as that inherited by the Japanese artisans from generations of artistic ancestors. And our people do not undergo, and probably never will undergo, the surrender of body and soul to training in one specific handicraft which formed the basis of the craftsman's education in old Japan. Even were it possible, one may doubt, unhappily, whether a bare living is now to be gained in that way - in the West. Our arts were nurtured mainly on the direct patronage of the aristocracy - as, indeed, were most of the arts of Japan. We are now traversing a period of uncertainty and difficulty, in which commercialism is a potent factor. Perhaps we may dare to look forward, in our more healthy moods of optimism, to a time when our own democracy shall develop and generously maintain its graphic arts, as did what Noguchi finely calls the "proud plebeianism" of old Japan, which counted Hiroshige in its ranks, perhaps, even in his own day, not without some honour.