About Masterpiece of the Month
Reflecting on the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collection this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection. Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).
Ando Hiroshige, Dusk Scene (1833-4)
This is one of fifteen Japanese woodcuts presented to the gallery by the generous benefactor Alfred de Pass (1861-1952). Of the de Pass presentations, six works were by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). The benefactor presented these Hiroshige works in 1930; he gave further Japanese woodcuts in 1948.
Most of the Alfred de Pass gifts to the gallery were works by European or South African artists so the presentation of Japanese woodcuts stands out as unusual. It is explained, however, by the extraordinary interest in Japanese culture among late-nineteenth-century European artists. De Pass grew up with this late-century generation and absorbed their interests. He was an admirer of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists and by extension an admirer of those who inspired them – and one of the great influences on Impressionist artists and their followers was Japanese woodcuts and particularly the work of early nineteenth-century printmakers Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
In discussions between the European artists, and in their work, there are frequent references to Japanese prints. Van Gogh was just one of the enthusiasts, referencing them frequently in his letters to his brother; he extolled the prints for their freshness and vigour and for the richness of their colours, while praising Japanese artists for their childlike closeness to nature – “come now, isn’t it almost a true religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers?” Above all, Japanese art was valued by Van Gogh and other European artists for its abstract beauty, for the way in which it eschewed Western-style realism in favour of a simplified and decorative play with lines, shapes and non-illusionistic colour. Long before traditional African sculptural work was discovered by the West, Japanese art offered an alternative to tired European pictorial conventions.
Analysis of the work
Loosely translated as Dusk Scene, this work is from the artist’s 1833-4 series titled Fifty-three Stages on the Tōkaidō, a set of images detailing scenes (from all seasons and times of day) along the Tōkaidō road. This road was one of the main routes between Edo (today’s Tokyo) and the city of Kyoto; it was much-travelled in the early nineteenth century as Japan grew more prosperous and as domestic tourism increased. Against the backdrop of this tourism, written accounts as well as pictorial images of the country and its scenery and people became very popular. This series by Hiroshige tapped into the demand; it was the visual equivalent of a widely-read comic novel of the same theme, Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (translated as Shank’s Mare or Footing it along the Tōkaidō) which had appeared in instalments between 1802 and 1822. Like the novel, Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stages was a great success; it detailed the landscape and everyday life along the route, using the fifty-three post stations as its ‘chapters’. These post stations, resting and provisioning places, gave Hiroshige’s series a narrative flow and assimilated it to a textual account, even to a tourist’s guide book.
In this image, three figures make their way along the route between tall trees. All three are bound in the same direction, but the figure behind carries on his back a large mask which gives the illusion that he faces us. The mask represents a Shinto deity, a tengu, one of the legendary gods of Japanese Shinto or folk religion; it has the red face and long nose that was regarded as one of the tengu’s defining features. These, then, are pilgrims, en route to a Shinto shrine, perhaps the Iso Grand Shrine which was stationed on this route. But as we encounter them here, the pilgrims are approaching the town of Numazu seen in the distance, a town famous for its surrounding pine forest – the ‘forest of a thousand pines’. The trees, densely clustered, provide a dark framing device at left; other trees are banked at the right and behind the houses in the distance. A river snakes through the landscape, the land cutting into it on the left with sharp angles. The darkness of the land and trees at left – and of the rooftops in the distance – is offset by the pale luminosity of the path, the headgear of the travellers, the facades of the buildings and above all the great moon glimpsed behind the foreground tree.
However in addition to its stylistic qualities, regarded in the West as so exotic, the image is also testimony to the Japanese printmaker’s interest in casual informal scenes from everyday life. This was another reason for the Western interest in this art. In the second half of the nineteenth century, European avant-garde artists like Manet and his followers were looking for a new beauty in the mundane – in genre subjects – and they looked to Japanese art for inspiration. These prints were named Ukiyo-e images, or ‘images of the floating world’. Derived originally from a spiritual Buddhist interest in transience, here the idea of ‘the floating world’ was secularised and pointed to the transience of mundane daily life and events, and their interest for the artist. It was a focus which appealed to a European artistic world looking to break away from grand subjects and lofty moralising.
The woodcut medium
The informality and transience inherent in the idea of Ukiyo-e was reinforced by the medium of the print, an art form which was disposable, small in size, reproducible and relatively cheap. For European admirers, the medium of the colour woodcut print was intrinsically bound up with the idea of Japanese art.
In order to produce these prints, the artist produced a template of the image. This was then transferred, often by an assistant, to a semi-transparent paper and pasted face down on to a wooden block. The block was then chiselled away, leaving the lines and solid areas of the image standing in relief on the surface. After inking, a soft and durable paper such as mulberry was pressed onto the wooden block to print off the image. Although originally monochrome, by the late eighteenth century a process of creating multi-colour prints had been developed, with separate blocks being used for each colour. It was a skilled and complex procedure but the overall effect of the finished prints was of something light, entertaining and informal. High art met journalistic reporting in these images and gave them a huge cultural appeal in late nineteenth-century Europe.