Not that staring at huge slides of nudes wasn’t a good time, but my art history class in college would’ve been a helluva lot more fun if I had taken a class on Japanese wood-cutting, specifically the work of Ando Hiroshige.
Hiroshige populates his prints with a cast of comical characters: litter-bearers grunt under the strain of their prosperous and portly payload, peasants scramble to find cover from the elements, and for whatever reason, the bare arses of men and horses can be found in many a print (so here I am staring at nudes again – maybe Titian isn’t that bad after all…).
For their impresive exhibit, the Phillips Gallery’s curators have interspersed the prints with Western paintings (tour rejects, alas). Their intention is to show how artists like Cezanne and other impressionists were influenced by Hiroshige’s work, particularly the way he composed his prints. The effect (on people like me, at least) was to highlight just how little I knew about Eastern tradition of art and Japanese history and culture. I could fit each Cezanne, Degas, or Picasso into the narrative of Western art, but for each Japanese print, it felt like the image was floating in a contextual void.
I imagine Cezanne, Degas and Picasso felt similarly when (if) they saw Hiroshige’s work. For both for myself and my imagined luminaries of Western art, Hiroshige’s compositions were revolutionary in their alien presentation of the familiar. The stylistic elements of the woodcuts are utterly foreign, and yet the tribulations of Hiroshige’s weary travelers, hard-working peasants, and elegant geishas are immediately recognizable. In short, Hiroshige’s gift, and the key to this exhibit’s success, is his humanity.
Definitely check it out while you can. The exhibition runs until Sept. 4th, tickets are $8, $6 for students/seniors. For more information, visit https://www.phillipscollection.org/.