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Views and Viewpoints
Japanese andscape prints from the National Gallery of AustraIa collection in the exhibition Monet & Japan

image: Katsushika Hokusai 'Poem of Sangi Takamura' c.1835-36 colour woodblock print National Gallery of Australia

Katsushika Hokusai
'Poem of Sangi Takamura' c.1835-36
colour woodblock print
National Gallery of Australia
click to enlarge

The introduction of foreign ideas during the Edo period in Japan (1600—1868) offered new ways of seeing the world. In the popular art form known as ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of the floating world’, the influence of Western methods of realistic representation such as perspective and the use of chiaroscuro led to a layering of traditional and introduced forms of visual language. The resultant complexity of modes of expression particularly characterises the eccentric designs and extravagant colouration of the landscapes of the ukiyo-e artists Katsushika Hokusai (1760—1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797—1849). Such manifestations may be regarded as a distortion of Western pictorial methods as rationalised by the Eastern mind, or an Eastern aesthetic overlaid by Western method but made resilient by its spiritual connection to nature. Like Monet’s landscapes these works were part of a revolutionary reinterpretation of aesthetic principles that reflected a fertilisation of traditional modes by foreign influences.

Similarly, the influence of ukiyo-e woodblock prints was also profound in the evolution of a new artistic expression in 19th-century Europe. Their strange compositional arrangements, challenging perspectives, striking colour combinations, and images of modern life provided the Impressionists with a new artistic vocabulary. The landscape prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige were particularly lauded by the Impressionists, who saw these works as epitomising an Eastern aesthetic.

The ukiyo-e art movement flowered in the great metropolis of Edo, the capital of Japan and the site of modern-day Tokyo, for more than two and a half centuries from 1600. The images of city life focused on the two infatuations of the urban class — beautiful women and actors of the Kabuki theatre. With the liberalisation of travel restrictions within Japan during the 19th century there was a shift in taste to landscape prints. They showed not only views of famous sites in and around the metropolis, but also views along the great highways that branched out of the capital towards the now more accessible provinces and cities. At this time foreign influences also became more prominent and artists integrated Western realist techniques into the landscapes to create viewpoints that catered to the popular taste for the unusual.

Clearly visible from Edo, the majestic cone of the volcano, Mount Fuji, had long held the fascination of the Japanese. It was considered sacred and was a common site of pilgrimage. In the early 1830s Hokusai produced his major series on Mount Fuji, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, c. 1830—35. A popular success, it was followed by a three-volume illustrated book, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. The Sazaidö or the ‘Turban-shell Hall’, a three-storey tower attached to the Rakan Temple that enshrined 500 wooden images of the disciples of the Buddha, was renowned for its fine views of Edo, and during the Buddhist memorial festival in late spring worshippers would climb the steep staircase to admire the prospect. In Thrban-shell Hall of the Five Hundred Rakan Temple from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji a group of people have gathered to admire the fine view of Mount Fuji. Hokusai has creatively appropriated Western methods to achieve his own ends. In the foreground, using multiple vanishing points, Hokusai arranges the lines that describe the wooden deck of the Sazaidö hall to focus our attention on the summit of the volcano. While approximating a Western perspective construction, nevertheless they do not converge on a single vanishing point. The pointed finger of the young boy at the left of the group similarly aligns our gaze. Such a creative use of perspective was virtually unknown in Western art. In Fuji from Rakan Temple, c.1842, from volume three of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, Hokusai returned to this theme with an even more elevated viewpoint that takes in the elaborate Buddhist finial at the apex of the Sazaido and a flock of cranes about to roost on the roof below. The shift in alignment of the tall poles of the lumberyard seen near the mountain in both works indicates our changed viewpoint. Observations of visual distortion such as this were unknown in Japanese art until the influx of Western ideas and techniques.

image: Utagawa Hiroshige 'Evening view of Saruwaka Street' 1856 colour woodblock print National Gallery of Australia

Utagawa Hiroshige
'Evening view of Saruwaka Street'
1856 colour woodblock print
National Gallery of Australia
click to enlarge image


Hokusai’s younger contemporary Hiroshige also chose an elevated viewpoint for his view of Mount Fuji from the dyers’ quarter in the Kanda district of Edo in his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1856—58. An autumn breeze gently wafts strips of cloth hung out to dry; the intermingling of their various patterns forms a wonderful decorative frame for the mountain. In this series Hiroshige has depicted well-known sites in and around Edo during different seasons. Although Edo was one of the world’s major cities there was ample opportunity for the urban dwellers to enjoy the natural world beside the various tree-lined waterways and in the precincts of temples and shrines, thus maintaining their traditional love of nature. Hiroshige’s evocative rendering of the seasons in this series made it immensely popular. In contrast Hokusai’s appeal was due to his inventive use of design and humour. Hokusai’s interpretation of the same theme from volume two of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji 1835, allows only a partial view of the mountain through strips of dyed cloth the viewer must complete its shape in the mind’s eye. Similarly we ‘see’ the dyer with a bamboo pole as he lifts a freshly dyed strip of cloth onto its drying rack. Such visual innuendo is an intriguing and humorous feature of the images in the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.

Parody was also used to humorous effect in Hokusai’s last great, but incomplete series, One Hundred Poems explained by the Nurse, c.1835—36, in which poems from Japan’s classic anthology are given a contemporary setting. Normally the depiction of Japan’s one hundred poetic immortals and their accompanying poems followed the traditional format of an image of the muse next to his prose, however, Poem of Sangi Takamura makes only a passing reference to the story of Ono no Takamura, a 9th-century scholar of Chinese who was banished from the imperial court to the Eighty Islands. Hokusai’s only reference to the poem is the departing boat in the distance. He concentrates on the image of fisherwomen diving for abalone and their lascivious companions watching their activities with interest. The One Hundred Poems explained by the Nurse is said to have been visualised by an innocent nanny; their humorous and often erotic undertones made even more apparent by her naivety. The work epitomises Hokusai’s strong sense of design enhanced by the clarity of line and interplay of vibrant colours.

Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1856—58, is characterised by its unusual viewpoints. Evening view of Saruwaka Street, with its use of linear perspective and a single vanishing point, contains the most overt use of realism in the series. The most unusual feature of this work is Hiroshige’s use of shadows. Rarely seen in Japanese art, these shadows infuse his depiction of the moonlit Kabuki theatre district of Saruwaka-machi with an eerie quality that would have appealed to the public taste for the bizarre. However, the regular order of deep pictorial space was seen as inelegant and conflicted with the traditional style of emphasising the abstract poetic qualities of a painting.

Realistic pictorial methods had been anathema to Japanese traditional taste in painting. However, the creative possibilities of these methods, when they became known, were not ignored by Japanese artists outside the traditional painting schools and gradually became integrated into a native expression. As artists became aware of foreshortening, the decorative possibilities of framing a scene with a dominant foreground was made apparent. The ukzyo-e artist Keisai Eisen collaborated with Hiroshige on a series of views along the Kisokaidö, the highway that connected Edo with the imperial capital Kyoto.

image: Keisai Eisen 'Itahana' late 1830s colour woodblock print National Gallery of Australia

Keisai Eisen
'Itahana' late 1830s
colour woodblock print
National Gallery of Australia
click to enlarge

The Kisokaido wound its way through mountainous areas crossing major rivers. In the series, Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaicto Road, dramatic and panoramic views of river crossings and passages through rugged mountains predominate. Travel must have been particularly difficult in winter and in Itahana Eisen depicts travellers making their way through heavy snow along a pine tree-fringed riverbank. The gnarled forms of the trees, their outlines accentuated by the neutral sky that they are framed against, creates a complex intermingling of shapes that draws the viewer to the negative space between their forms. Hokusai’s treatment of this effect in Fuji through bamboo trees from volume two of One Hundred Views ofMount Fuji contains a greater complexity. The subtly shaded grey background provides the contrast against which the clearly delineated forms of the bamboo grove dominate. Intermingled amongst the mature trees new shoots appear; their shapes, made less distinct by their shading, add a subtle sense of depth. The foreground presents an intriguing pattern through which the outline of Mount Fuji is perfectly posed.

The graceful arch of the Japanese ‘drum bridge’ offered the perfect form to frame a view. The bridge as a subject intrigued Hokusai; he produced a print depicting one hundred bridges as well as the series Rare Views of Famous Bridges in all the Provinces, c.1834. In his view of The drum bridge at the Kameido Tenjin Shrine from this series, the steep arch of the bridge is proving to be a formidable obstacle for a number of visitors to Edo’s Kameido Tenjin, a shrine famous for its wisteria trellises, visible to the right of the bridge. In Fuji with seven bridges in one view from volume two of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, Hokusai has chosen a view full of visual intrigue. Six of the seven bridges are discreetly hidden within this composition, the arch of the foreground ‘drum bridge’ perfectly framing the whole. Hokusai has cleverly used the binding of the book to balance the sets of bridge supports, which together divide the composition into quarters so that it takes on the effect of a four-fold screen. Within these ‘quarters’ each composition is perfectly balanced, and the action in between, such as the fisherman’s pole and the horse’s lead, or the various bridges and paths, leads the eye through the whole composition. On the arch of the ‘drum bridge’ the composition is skillfully arranged; the figure in the centre is divided in just the right place by the binding of the book. Such a wonderful accuracy with composition clearly demonstrates Hokusai’s mastery of design.

Asian art, as religious expression, has been characterised by stylisation and consequent lack of individual expression. As a product of an urban class unshackled from tradition, the ukzyo-e art movement fostered individual artistic expression. In ukiyoe the freedom to draw from various traditions in the pursuit of a unique style led to a synthesis of East—West art in the work of Holusai and Hiroshige. When their work first surfaced in Europe artists were astounded by the creative possibilities that these ‘pictures of the floating world’ offered. However, the role Japanese art played in this process has been largely forgotten. Monet & Japan will be the first exhibition to fully explore the influence of ukiyo-e on one of the leaders of this artistic revolution, Claude Monet.

Gary Hickey
Exhibition curator

first published in Artonview, Issue No. 25 Autumn 2001, p.12-22