July 27, 2012

Hiroshige's Birds and Branches

        I'm in the mood for something pretty, and here are some lovely images by the artist known as Utagawa, Ando, and Ichiyusai Hiroshige (1797-1858).  Fun biographical fact: Hiroshige was a fireman, a hereditary job that apparently gave him ample leisure time as a sort of minor samurai.  He did, however, take his firefighting duties seriously and was commended for his heroism in 1818.  But he passed the position to his brother in 1823 in order to concentrate more fully on his art. 
        In traditional Japanese printmaking, like early wood block printing in Europe, the artist is the one who painted the original design, while anonymous craftsmen are responsible for carving, inking, and so on.  Also, this style of printmaking is intended to reproduce the look of traditional brush painting, so it's usually characterized by the sinuous shapes and tapered strokes you get with a brush.  For this reason I tend to feel that it doesn't really take advantage of the woodblock medium in its own right -- but that doesn't mean it isn't beautiful!
        Japanese printmaking is especially famous for its incredible gradations of full color, applied in washes of watercolor ink.  But as usual, I'm concentrating today on prints that aren't full-color.  Most of them aren't pure black-and-white, either, since they almost always have at least one mid-tone block in addition to the black (or dark blue, in some.)
        One interesting thing about these is that many of them include a haiku or some other lines of poetry.  Unfortunately I can't read it, and while some of them had a transcription given, none had a translation.  I'm curious to know what poem was paired with each image, but alas, I'm afraid I'm out of luck.
        Hiroshige is most famous for his landscapes, including his Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.  Even in his so-called landscapes, however, Hiroshige often put the focus on a single object in the foreground, with the landscape visible beyond.  He also made lots of simpler images with animals, especially birds, and plants.  These simpler images are also more likely to be simpler prints, without the full-color treatment.  I assume they were cheaper and available to a wider audience (maybe Hiroshige considered them to be potboilers), but I don't really know that.
        In any case, I like these pretty pieces, even if they are a little formulaic.  I had trouble limiting myself to only five to include in this post.  Precisely because they all do have so much in common, the more of them I look at, the more I start noticing subtler differences.  I started thinking, "Well, I have to include the bats, because they're so different, and bats never get enough love…  and I couldn't possibly leave out the begonia, with such graceful curves and that sweet sparrow…  and that nandina branch with such interesting leaves and wonderful full moon background…  and, and, and…  So the next thing I know my blog overfloweth.
        I hope you enjoy them, too!

[Pictures: Sparrow and Begonia, wood block print by Hiroshige, (image from Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA));
Descending Geese, wood block print by Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1830 (image from the Art Institute of Chicago);
Bird on Nandina Branch under Full Moon, wood block print by Hiroshige, (image from MFA);
Bats and Branch, wood block print by Hiroshige, (image from MFA);
Plum Blossom and Bush Warbler, wood block print by Hiroshige, c. 1835 (image from WikiPaintings).]

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