Hiroshige 2023

Main building
26.11.2023 - 05.05.2024

Opening: 26.11.2023, 12.00

Idea & display arrangement: Anna Król, PhD Graphic interventions: Kaja Mucha Supervising conservator: Joanna Haba

From the Collection of Feliks ‘Manggha’ Jasieński

Without my brushes
I depart
from the Eastern Capital
and I will see the sights
in the provinces to the west
Hiroshige, 1858

The Manggha Museum is holding an exhibition focusing on one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), who largely contributed to changing the visual language of Western art in the 19th and 20th centuries and the rise of the phenomenon known as Japonisme. The Feliks ‘Manggha’ Jasieński Collection comprises nearly two thousand woodblock prints of his design.

Even though Hiroshige came from a samurai family, he rather identified with the urban culture of Edo. The artist was famous primarily for his numerous landscape series, especially The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi), One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei), and The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō (Kisokaidō rokujūkyū tsugi no uchi). He was a true master at depicting landscape at various times of the year and the day, in changing weather conditions. He continued to experiment, developing original ploys in pictorial composition, new devices with respect to the treatment of space, and intriguing ways of representing reality.

The exhibition Hiroshige 2023: From the Collection of Feliks ‘Manggha’ Jasieński showcases three dominant topoi in the artist’s work – Nature, the Road, and Places – which interweave into a timeless statement. They are accompanied by significant motifs relevant to contemporary art and popular culture. There is also a biographical element, referring to Hiroshige’s samurai background, considered in the context of his prints depicting famous Japanese heroes, notably the 47 ronin in the series The Treasury of Loyal Retainers (Chūshingura).

The exhibition is complemented by a space illustrating the artist’s influence on landscape painting in the Young Poland movement.

From the perspective of 2023, we take a different look at Hiroshige’s oeuvre and analyse it in a different way. We see him more deeply and comprehensively as an artistic phenomenon that escapes simple descriptions. Today, Hiroshige appears as a thoroughly modern artist, forging new paths in 21st-century art, a forerunner of the new media, modern-day animation, and experimental film. His work is like a Borgesian garden with branching paths: we can choose one of them.

Nature. The world of non-humans represents a unique thematic category in Japanese art, termed kachō-ga (ka 花 ‘flower’, chō 鳥 ‘bird’, ga 画 ‘picture’, i.e. ‘pictures of flowers and birds’), which designates one of the three major themes – next to landscape and figural compositions – in the art of the Far East. In Hiroshige’s masterly prints, they create a synaesthetic illusion: we can smell the scent of the flowers, hear the song of the birds and the cicadas.

The Road. During his formative trip along the Tōkaidō highway (from Edo to Kyoto), which Hiroshige took in 1832, the artist made a large number of sketch drawings, which later gave rise to the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi). A sensitive and insightful observer, Hiroshige made perceptive sketches of the people he met and the places that he visited during the trip: the stations with their teahouses, inns, river fords and mountain pass crossings – landscapes seen in abruptly changing weather, and also determined by the rhythm of days and nights. He also depicted peasants, craftsmen, samurai, priests, and various comic figures. This may be why he was sometimes described as a ‘painter of travels’. The series, one of the major ukiyo-e masterpieces and a very personal vision of the native landscape, became a source of inspiration not only to Japanese but also – and above all – to Western artists.

Places. A key concept for Hiroshige’s art is that of place, in some cases tantamount to view, except a view is something that we merely see while a place is experienced in time and space, we stay in it. The artist depicted both his city, Edo (one-third of his prints show its views), and various parts of his country. While many of them do indeed resemble modern-day postcards, most are images of places of special significance. Looking at the places chosen by the artist, whether sacred or secular – rock formations, waterfalls, bridges, temples, restaurants, teahouses, fairs, bourses, and crowded streets – what we see are only images of lost places.

Hiroshige and Polish Japanism. The Far Eastern artist was quite well known to Polish landscape painters. They had his works in their own Japanese collections; they would swap them occasionally, and often viewed even more at Feliks ‘Manggha’ Jasieński’s. His influence is most evident in the work of the landscape painters – Jan Stanisławski (1860–1907), Julian Fałat (1853–1929), and Ferdynand Ruszczyc (1870–1936), notably in the structure of the picture space, the framing of the images, the ease in using blank areas which are nonetheless full of content, and in their tendency to synthesise.

Motion. It is Hiroshige’s depictions of motion that modern-day artists seem to find the most inspiring. A closer look through prints from his various series produces an irresistible impression that the artist is interested not so much in the genre scenes observed as in pure motion. He shows people engaged in various chores and errands, in constant movement, rushing somewhere, bustling with activity. His works resemble Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of humans and animals in motion. What he shares with the Anglo-American photographer is the same compulsion to depict the impossible – time sequences.

The Shadow. In Western culture, the shadow is inseparably connected with the search for the origin of painting, i.e. art. What is the function of the shadow in Hiroshige’s prints? In Japanese culture and everyday life, the shadow is a natural, domestic experience. The shōji partitions become screens for the ‘projection’ of figures and even entire scenes. Hiroshige was fully aware of the artistic potential of the shadow, which is why he gladly included it in his pictorial compositions.

… and the Rain. The representations of shadows are often combined with rendition of scenes in the rain. It should be remembered that the early modern art of the West knew no depiction of pouring rain. There were pictures capturing moments just before a storm, but rainfall was never painted. Hiroshige was hailed as a ‘master of the rain’. This may be why these prints commanded such interest among Western artists and had such an impact on them.

The Tale of Genji and Other Stories

In the 1840s Hiroshige took to designing various series depicting historical or literary events. These included for example scenes from the life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Prince Genji (of Genji monogatari), and the tale of the Soga brothers’ vengeance (Soga monogatari zue), which had become the stuff of kabuki plays. Beyond any doubt, the most popular story was that of the 47 ronin (Chūshingura).

Harimaze, kage-e, and Sundry Sketches

The artist also created prints intended as a kind of game with the viewer, referring to commonly-known pastimes and amusements which formed an important part of Japanese life. One such form was the harimaze, literally translated as ‘picture variety’ or ‘different images’. The print consisted of several thematically and formally separate pictures, each in a geometric shape. The sheet could be cut into pieces, and the pictures could be combined in any way desired or treated as separate works. It was up to their purchaser to decide how they would ultimately function.

An equally interesting collection is that of ‘shadow-picture’ prints (kage-e) – a form of entertainment known almost all over the world. For today’s creators of comics, anime and other animations, his harimaze, kage-e, and various other sketches are a laboratory of forms and an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
Anna Król

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