Ando Hiroshige (Utagawa Hiroshige) 1797 - 1858
Hiroshige did, with a sense of space, very much what we have been doing with our architecture... here you get a sense of tremendous limitless space, instead of something confined within a picture. On what is your attention focused? Nothing.
To artists and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, van Gogh, Gauguin and many others, the work of Ando Hiroshige must have been a revelation. A reinvention of the landscape tradition that seemed utterly modern despite the archaism of Japanese culture at that point in the nineteenth century. Hiroshige’s art was as Wright described it:
...of the artisan class. the common people in the strictest sense of the term, and attests to the infinite delight, the inherent poetic grace not of the nobleman but of the hard worked humble Japanese.
For these artists the work of Hiroshige displayed the possibility of a new type of landscape art without hierarchy, without focus, where the view is framed but not bound by the edge of the picture. An art that was poetic, spiritual and not necessarily literal. All of this was innovative to the west and it is partly this reaction to his works (and to the tireless publicity that Wright accorded to him) on which his subsequent reputation rests.
Hiroshige came from a middle class family in Edo (Tokyo). He determined to become an artist after seeing the works of Hokusai, an artist who was to exert an influence over him his whole life. Rejected by Toyokuni, he apprenticed under Toyokuni’s colleague Toyohiro. His inclination was towards landscape, producing his first major series in 1832. That year Hiroshige was invited to join a Shogunal delegation taking the Tokaido Road from Edo to Kyoto. The series of prints that he developed marking each of the fifty three post stations on the long journey were instantly successful. Ukiyo was a diversion for the burgeoning and increasingly wealthy middle class. Travel restrictions were gradually being relaxed and the inquisitive townsmen were starting to make journeys as tourists. The 53 stations series were in some respects both travel guide and souvenir. Their popularity in the west is partly because of their mass appeal to the home audience since each print pictures day to day life along the three hundred mile road. The shogunal procession appears in only one print.
Hiroshige went on to make more than 2000 designs of the Tokaido out of his 5000 print design output. Some of these are extraordinary and fresh with startlingly inventive compositions and colour juxtapositions. Inevitably with such an output, much of the late work can be poor in quality or repetitive.
In 1856, Hiroshige went into seclusion, practicing as a buddhist monk. Nevertheless in that same year he started arguably his most inventive and influential series: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. This vertical oban series was printed in deluxe edition with thick paper and complex techniques including mica, embossing and burnishing. It is this series that was so quickly popular in the west, van Gogh copying two of the prints from the series in oil paints. Hiroshige was to die in the Edo Cholera epidemic of 1858 before completing the edition.
Frank Lloyd Wright was instrumental in introducing Hiroshige to a wider audience in the United States during the 1920’s. Wright was an obsessive collector and dealer and his championing of Hiroshige amongst collectors definitely contributed to Hiroshige’s later success in the sale rooms. This was at a time when Utagawa artists were out of favour, being perceived then as decadent and vulgar compared to classical artists of the 18th century. That is maybe why Hiroshige still commands the highest sale room prices for his best work, compared to contemporaries such as Kuniyoshi or Kunisada.
Hiroshige was an important artist especially outside Japan. His influence on his contemporaries was considerable but landscape prints declined in popularity as the nineteenth century continued and by the next great landscape period in the early twentieth century stylistic influence was entirely from the west. Hiroshige is highly collectible, although there many times more reprinted Hiroshige than there are original. Buyers should be very mindful of almost identical nineteenth century copies from new blocks which have flooded the internet at inflated prices. Good pieces from the great series and editions are very expensive. Hiroshige was succeeded by Hiroshige II whose work and signature are very similar to his.