My first question scribed in my notebook about the HIroshige exhibit at the Norton Simon is "Do the Tokaido stations still exist?" I bring this up because it seems to encapsulate both the power on display of Hiroshige 's prints to evoke a specific historical poetic moment in Japan's imagination of itself, and also the shortcomings of the show itself.
A large chunk of the exhibit was dedicated to spanning, in order, both complete bodies of work of the famous 53 Stations of Tokaido, which are the 53 landmarks and resting places on the journey to the capital from Edo (modern day Tokyo), as well as the less well known smaller-scale portfolio of people along that same set of travels. There was an additional selection of his well know project 100 famous views of Edo, and the full portfolio of 36 View of Mount Fuji. Finishing out the exhibit was a small selection of various fans, birds and a couple of large wedding prints.
Passing by the fleeting landscapes and the wandering people on the road, I was really caught up thinking about the artistic process of making a project like the 53 Stations in which each of the locations exists in reality before the artist decided to make the project, so the project itself becomes intimately entwined with both the small demarkations of the stopping points but also imbuing a sense of meaning across the whole of a common journey that in a certain way was the defining season of the nobility of his period (every second year they had to stay for a year at the capital so that the emperor could keep closer reign over the whole of country and individual lords wouldn't grow too isolated or close to their peasants).
Trying to find an interesting take, and having to find an interesting take, on each of these places - each of these ideas really, since some are stunning vistas, others are tea shops, some are simple rivers that must be crossed without bridges - becomes the core artistic endeavor. I guess what really interests me about it is that the artist is engaging with things that already exist in the realm of art. It would be like me ding a photo project on famous stops on route 66 as agreed upon by all the guide books. I don't think I could pull it off, and make it good - hell, I don't even know if I'm part of a culture that could agree on 53 places to stop along route 66!
It's also interesting to try to imagine these works in two ways. The first as isolated segments - phantasmic windows with great space between the many many days that it would take a walking entourage to travel the 200+ miles between. Windows in to a space that seems almost alien in it's beauty. I spent so much time thinking about that kind of "aching beauty" and how walking hundreds of miles through rural landscapes might or might be something I could even do. Could imagine my feet hurting. The sheer strangeness of mid 1800's Japan to my internet savy, MFA artist, death metal loving self.
The manicured hills, ever-changing weather patterns, dipping sun, and etched valleys, far off ships, even the constant cropping of people by the hills, and the far off mountains shows that this landscape is very inhabited and active, that the idea of the landscape as something you as a people are always in, as opposed to the "raw" or "untrammeled" notion that pervades a western sense of landscape, such as Ansel Adams.
The major flaw in the exhibit was a sheer lack of information. The prints were stunning and challenging, but there wasn't even a map to show where Edo and Kyoto were, let alone the road, or more usefully, a map with the stations marked! There was no mention that aside from the two sets of 53 produced, there were an additional three versions made! I was just curious what portion of his know work that the show encompassed, but again, I and a helpful security guard were left to puzzle and guess eventually settling on, "This is a tiny fraction," based solely on the printed dates.
The reason I bring this up is that in a certain way, I hate wall text. I hate being told what to think about some given art. But I feel as though especially with cultures and times far away, having any grounding would be very helpful! There was no expression of where these prints sat in relationship to "art", which normally isn't an issue, but in this case these could be basically mistaken as postcards (imagine, many woodblock prints were used as packing material on ships bound for Europe!). For the figurative section of the 53 stations, it mentions that the focus was on the people of the landscape. Yet, if you actually looked at the prints, it wasn't about the "people" but about the ways that nobel and fashionable women traveled the road. Nearly every composition had a beauty, on the back of a servant crossing the river, sitting by the road side etc. Always with very stylish kimonos. But no mention of that in the wall text!
This served to enhance the fantastical poetry of the Floating World idea, served to make that mono no aware more clear, but didn't serve the audience as well as it could have in understanding the nuances of the work. It really seemed more exoticist in this context. (Well, to be honest, the day I went it was about 75% Japanese families speaking Japanese and talking with each other about the prints like they were old friends…) There were some photographs presented along with the different sections of the show, but there were no dates or captions, so I could never figure out exactly why they were there.
Perhaps the strangest moment that highlighted this lack of curatorial context was a triple-wide print of a wedding processional where all of the people where foxes instead! All the info we got as viewers was the title, "Fox Wedding Processional" and it's date. On top of that it was in with the section that was otherwise stripped-down small studies of birds!
The middle section, composed of a small selection of the 100 Famous Views of Edo portfolio was interesting particularly because it was by far the most radical in framing and composition of all of the works in the show. Paper fish blocking windows, hanging turtles, jutting flags, soaring hawks met mid-dive. You could almost see glimmering of a photographic sense of vision in these works - a really heavy investment in the frame of the image as well as the way real items get arranged in front of that frame. These prints really seem to resonate with some of the visual fireworks of the 60's and 70's Japanese photographers such as Daido Moriyama. Both having a high sense of formal playfulness and investigation.
Throughout the exhibit I had a hard time with the figures in the landscapes. Perhaps I don't have the visual vocabulary to distinguish them, but I felt as though they were all pretty generic (Exception: the clothes on the upper-class women). I really wasn't sure if they were supposed to be that way because of something with the formal constraints of that type of art-making, or if it was a specific choice of Hiroshige.
My own personal aesthetics seem to deeply tie both my sense of place and my art to the seasons, journeys and cities, so this was a distinctly interesting show for me. The combination of formal struggle in observation of a city in a specific manner, in this case Ukiyo-E, strikes me as similar to a contemporary process for equally insular and trope-ridden black metal, for instance. A construct, a poetic psycho-geography of mono no aware, formalism and austerity and decadence being played on the opposite side of the same social coin. The small poetries that happen everywhere - As though these are place-moments designed to be a garden for your eyes.
I also wanted to know if he remained a firefighter after he worked up the money to become a printer's apprentice (wikipedia says that, yes, he did until nearing the age of forty when his child was old enough to take his position). These wildly divergent views of the nooks and nuances of a city seem to suggest someone who spent a great deal of time roaming all over and all in it's sprawl. In fact, I was heard on NPR that firefighter's jobs in old Japan was actually not to splash water around but instead to dismantle the wooden houses around the burning house so that the fire wouldn't spread. In a way, that sort of absence seems to speak volumes to Hiroshige's ability to imply the ethereal with a few lines, to engage the viewer more by leaving portions of the print hazy or missing, to make you feel the longing for home in the curl of a wave on a summer day.