ANDO HIROSHIGE
EDWARD F. STRANGE: THE COLOUR-PRINTS OF HIROSHIGE


CHAPTER XIV

A JAPANESE APPRECIATION OF HIROSHIGE

I am permitted to quote - as a not unsuitable conclusion to this book - an appreciation of Hiroshige by a Japanese writer, Mr. Sotaro Nakai. It appears, in language not without an eloquence of its own, to define the position of the great artist, in terms which a Western critic could hardly expect to have at his command; and from a point of view somewhat deeper and more philosophical than the technical aspect which necessarily appeals to us. It calls for no comment beyond an expression of warm thanks for so illuminating an exposition.

 

HIROSHIGE AND YEDO'S CIVILIZAITION. By SOTARO NAKAI

Yedo's civilization was the civilization of men. The Yedo people tried to find all the pleasure of life in the congregation of men. In their eagerness to drink deep of the fountains of pleasure they did not mind ruining themselves in the theatres and gay quarters. Artists also tried to seek the beauties of art in men. This was palpably wrong. Art that lost Mother Earth to follow frivolity must be considered as a deplorable art, for artifice, however elaborate the painting, is not comparable to the beauties of Nature.

It was Ichiryusai Hiroshige who discovered the lost earth in the midst of this general decadence of art and instilled a new life into art. Why was Nature lost in the growth of art in Yedo? The civilization of Yedo had grown with the city as a centre. In other words, its civilization had been nurtured by the citizens who sought the beauties and pleasures among themselves, and so it is not surprising that the provinces of art and literature should be confined to these limits. Yedo's civilization was essentially that of the common people whose destinies were swayed by the development of the city. The admiration of the city in which they lived and their pride in it was never absent from the minds of the Yedo people. There is a more potent reason why the Yedo people sought their pleasures among men. At that time the common people of Yedo held the power of finance in their hands, and money was their life and soul: yet they never hesitated to spend money like water. What was the reason? At that time the common people suffered from all the tyranny and oppression of the Tokugawa Government, but they dared not raise a finger against the tyrants, for it meant an instant extinction. Their pent-up feelings found a safety-valve in pleasure-making that money could buy. It is not surprising in such circumstances that theatres and gay quarters should have made wonderful development, and the last vestige of Nature was swept away from the art and literature of Yedo. It was evident, however, that men could not wallow for ever in the mire of sensualism, and the day of awaking must arrive sooner or later.

It was Hiroshige who first discovered the lost earth in the midst of general degeneration. It is true that Seikaku and Ikku in literature, and Harunobu, Toyoharu, Kiyonaga, Utamaro and Hokusai in art, tried to depict Nature to a more or less extent, but none penetrated deeper into their objective than Hiroshige did.

Hiroshige's Art - The truth is that the people had become tired of too much artifice in the civilization of Yedo, and of art and literature without any genuine spirit. Since the Kwansei era the Tokugawa Government repeatedly issued orders aiming at checking the luxurious tendencies of the people, without much effect. During the Tempo era, Mizuno Echizen no Kami issued another order in which he enjoined on the people the necessity of thrift and saving. From this time on the people gradually began to incline more in favour of steadier and simpler life, and this tendency in popular taste must not be lost sight of in the study of such popular art as Ukiyoye.

At first Hiroshige used to paint human figures, but later he became conscious that this was not his mission, and the growing popular demand brought him nearer to Nature. Early in the Tempo era, Hiroshige joined a party dispatched by the Tokugawa Government for the purpose of presenting horses to the Emperor in Kyoto, and journeyed along the Tokaido. The trip proved an eye-opener to the master in more senses than one. When Nature was spread before the artist in all its splendour, the artistic instincts dormant in the inner recesses of his mind began to move with restless activity, and his delight and amazement were no doubt boundless. He was struck by a new inspiration owing to the beauties of Nature and the secrets of earth which he had hitherto failed to discern, and determined to dedicate his life and art to Nature. Hiroshige was brought from darkness into light and into a wider, prettier new world from the narrow confines of art in which he used to move. It is not surprising that the master should be filled with a newer and greater inspiration. The result was the production of Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi, Kyoto Meisho and Omi Hakkei.

From this time on Hiroshige travelled far and wide throughout the country delineating Nature in all its moods and aspects. He travelled over the quiet, lonely roads of old Japan seeking subjects for his pictures, and when the night fell he relished and refreshed the artistic impressions obtained during the day under the rushlight of an obscure inn.

Hiroshige approached Nature with unadorned simplicity and artless truthfulness; and herein lies a clear distinction between his productions and those of Hokusai and Toyoharu. Some artists in their attempt to interpret Nature in her true aspects got hold only of her outer shell, and so their productions are necessarily superficial and defective. Hiroshige's attitude in depicting Nature, however, is honest, straightforward, and simple, and the result is wonderfully effective. His paintings, however, are not free from tones of loneliness, humour, melancholy and resignation, which were evidently derived from the world in which he lived. Especially loneliness and resignation were the prevailing feelings of the Yedo people at that time. The oppression of the Bakufu as exerted on the common people was so severe and relentless that they had to live in constant fear and trepidation of the powers that be, and the feelings of loneliness and melancholy were bred in their minds in process of time. They had no courage even to vent their grievances aloud, much less to protest the wrongs inflicted on them; they merely murmured their complaints and resigned themselves to fate. This is the reason that tones of loneliness and melancholy are discernible in some of Hiroshige's productions.

He avoided depicting the noise and bustle of life, but took delight in delineating such a scene in which a spring day is brought to a close amid the flying flakes of cherry-blossoms and the distant sound of a temple bell. It must not be thought, however, that these tones pervade all of Hiroshige's paintings. In some of his productions light humour and vivacity sparkle like gems, such as the scenes at Goyu and other places in his Tokaido paintings. In any interpretation of Hiroshige and his art the witty and humorous side of his nature must not be lost sight of.

Most of Hiroshige's art gives one an irresistible feeling of loneliness, and especially he seemed to have taken delight in depicting pilgrims and other travellers hurrying to their inns over the roads in the setting sun. It is, however, noticeable that even in lonely surroundings there exists in Hiroshige's works a warm, admirable harmony between man and Nature that is pleasing. This effect is strikingly evident in the painting in Kyoto Meisho and Naniwa Meisho.

Hiroshige treated men as part of Nature and brought men and earth into a perfect harmony. This is what makes his art particularly valuable. The study of Hiroshige's painting will convince one that human figures in his productions stand in such perfect harmony with their surroundings that they are present as part of Nature without the slightest marring effect. Thus men have been enabled to return to earth from which they had sprung, discarding resplendent artifice.

Hiroshige's portrayal of landscape scenery is simple, straightforward, and emotional. He had the knack of vividly bringing home to the mind of an onlooker the beauties of Nature which, though he might have seen for many years, he failed to appreciate. Hiroshige's art is so popular in conception, soft in symmetry, and so charming and enticing in effect, that one gets a feeling on studying his paintings as if one were sleeping in his mother's arms to the tune of a nursery song.

Even in the Ukiyoye prior to Hiroshige there are some who delineated independent landscape scenery. Among these may be mentioned Omi Hakkei by Kitao Seibi, Noted Places in the Tokaido by Toyohiro, and Omi Hakkei by Kiyonaga. The effects by these artists, while no doubt excellent in their way, lack the sincerity to penetrate deeper into the secrets of Nature as compared with the productions of Hiroshige. The Noted Places in Yedo for Twelve Months, by Utamaro, may be said to be merely the product of imagination, and there are no traces of sincerity as landscape paintings. Hokusai, who was a contemporary of Hiroshige, may be described as a better and more serious landscape painter than Utamaro. Hokusai, however, resorted to too much art in his work, and cannot be considered as a simple, honest painter of Nature. Hiroshige himself pointed out this tendency in Hokusai's art in the preface to his One Hundred Views of Fuji, published in the 6th year of Ansei.

In short, Hiroshige's painting may be said to be entirely free from artificial ornaments, and he effectually succeeded in resurrecting the earth lost owing to the peculiarly tantalizing civilization of Yedo. Quiet melancholy and serene loneliness are the predominant features of Hiroshige's paintings, but they are judiciously interspersed with light humour and sparkling wit.