Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road (Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi No Uchi): Shimada, 1833 - 34 (Hoeido Edition). Oban.
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Well, here is a relic from one of the greatest moments in the history of landscape art. A part of a creation that was to change much of the way that the great artists of Europe and Japan were to look at landscape forever. This astonishing object, just a piece of paper really, envisages the plain of a river delta, one which Hiroshige would have crossed himself, but… seen from above, as if in an as-yet-not-invented aeroplane. How astonishing! Obviously to our eyes there is nothing so revolutionary about this landscape, but for a world without aerial photography, this is a stupendous imaginative leap. Here is a landscape with no horizon - unheard of - here is a landscape seen from above in a strange made-up perspective seen at such a distance that the people that populate it seem like numerous insects crossing the rivulet from a garden tap! It is a masterwork… images like this and others from the ground-breaking first (great) Tokaido Road series changed how we look at landscape, how we see the world and how we record travel. It is all wrong that these scarce things should be relatively undervalued… lucky us, those who appreciate these beautiful prints, that they are still affordable.
This fine and baffling print is from the first edition of the first series of the many series that Hiroshige was due to make in the next twenty years. The Hoeido Edition is the best and most collectible of these.
The Great Tokaido Road was the artery that connected Edo to Kyoto. A rambling and winding route, the Tokaido snaked up and down mountain passes, forded rivers where there were no bridges, skirted the sea and crossed inhospitable, marshy land. Much of it, even in 1832, we would not today recognise as a road, resembling more of an English bridleway in places. As in this print, many points could only be crossed by bearers, bodily carrying travellers across stretches of water. Even so, through necessity, the road was travelled by every class of person, including the biannual trips made by powerful Daimyo and their entourages of up to 20,000 men.
Basil Stewart, the first authority on Hiroshige, says of the series in his monograph of 1925:
On his return, in 1834, he completed his sketches of the Tokaido, which were then published in album form, and became an immediate success, landscape having never before, in the history of Ukiyoye, been so treated. Hiroshige himself took particular pains over their production, and supervised the engraving and printing. Hence it is that this "Great Tokaido" series, as it is known to distinguish it from other and later series, the first edition of which was produced under his supervision, constitutes, in the opinion of collectors, Hiroshige's most famous work as a whole.
There are, of course, other landscape series, some of which are rarer, certain of them much rarer, and which contain many masterpieces, besides his first Tokaido set, but the latter remains his magnum opus, as it was through this he made his fame as a landscape artist.
The print shows a group of travellers on the sandy bank of the Oi River awaiting their turn to cross. The print is a fine copy of the first edition with carefully applied shading (bokashi). Colour and impression are fine, condition is fine excepting a couple of repaired wormholes on the top left margin. A copy of this print is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Published by Hoeido.
37 x 25 cm.