Hiroshige, View of Shiomizaka from The "Upright" Tokaido Road

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) The 'Upright' Tokaido Road #33, Shirasuka: View of Shiomizaka, 1855. Oban.

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This is a great view from the famous Tokaido Road series, Famous Sights of the Fifty-three Stations (Gojusan tsugi meisho zue), also known as the Vertical Tokaido. The wording of the title is very specific; the post station here is number 33, Shirasuka on the road itself, (reading from Edo to Kyoto). The title… the actual view that Hiroshige has drawn is Shiomizaka. Some commentators confuse the title with a well known confluence of hilly roads in Tokyo of the same name. This in fact is miles away… nearly equidistant between the two capitals. Many hill roads in Japan bear the name "Shiomizaka". The name carries a dual meaning in Japanese; the most common is one is "watch the tide" and another is "see death." Perhaps because of this there are several famous views and also prints that commemorate them.

To the uninitiated, the title, The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road must seem fairly meaningless. The road stretched between the two great cities Edo and Kyoto. By decree, so called post stations were set up at approximately a single day’s walking distance to enable travellers to make the journey on foot. Japan was an equable and civilised society from the settlement of the medieval period. There was a strong administration that set strict laws for behaviour and a ruthless legal system to ensure moral and civil obedience. Hence travel along this highway was nothing like as dangerous or uncomfortable as in England, say.

This print is from the last significant print series that Hiroshige made of the fifty-three post stations punctuating the great Tokaido Highway that stretched from the Imperial Capital at Kyoto to the administrative capital at Edo… modern day Tokyo.

Hiroshige made the journey from Edo to Kyoto in 1832 and he produced a series of woodblock prints to illustrate each stop. He was not the first artist to do this but he quickly became the most famous. Relaxation of laws of travel meant that his first series was received with tremendous  enthusiasm…  souvenirs, artworks and guide book all in one! Hiroshige continued to produce new series in a variety of sizes and formats, the vertical one illustrated here being the last significant contribution… he was to die a couple of years later.

This is classic Hiroshige: a winding road seen from a distance with small figures overwhelmed by nature. This is nature not at the service or indeed by the hand of man; very different to say the English landscape tradition. The print is a highly abstracted composition… three strong, blue horizontals; the sky, the horizon, the shore and against it that sea road climbing to the edge, (this refusal to acknowledge the device of perspective is something that Cezanne co-opted in nearly all of his many landscapes). Nets are drying at the fishing village on the shoreline.

The colour is very good, the impression is very fine and the print is full sized with complete margins, unbacked. The paper has some signs of age related yellowing. A copy of this print is in the MFA Boston.

Published by Tsutaya Kichizō (Kōeidō).

24cm x 36cm.