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Hiroshige Today, Gone Tomorrow

December 3, 2010

The thing that fascinates me about most  of Hiroshige’s ( 1797-1858)   works is this quiet subordination and envelopment of the human world into that of nature. It’s the seemingly neutral perspective of the object, the tree, the bird or flower, that’s paramount. Human activity is as interesting as the labor that transpires on an ant hill. Curious, but from a distance. On the opposite side of the spectrum is  Western art’s compulsive  anthropocentrism.

If you and I were an insect or a bird, this is how the world would look.

Perhaps this is god’s view- the beauty of utter neutrality, free from  the taint of the human stance.

What is eventful, in other words incidental, all the human noise, rises up like a trace of smoke, lingers between the branches, melts away where the earth and the sky meets.

The water laps, cooling yet still warm from the day’s sunshine. There’s a momentary flame from someone’s stove as dinner is prepared. A mother calls, someone laughs or scolds. Footsteps. Fall leaves flutter while a dog barks . Insect chirp and  buzz . They’re all still here.

The deep blue on the upper edge takes one’s breath away-catapults one into the stratosphere, high above where the air is thinner- and beyond, beyond the globe’s cocoon of oxygen, into the chill of outer space. Small to big. The innner and outer. Earth to the universe,


I just noticed the geese.

This image is so naturalistic and yet so stylized.  I want to make art like this. What is within the frame lives, convinces you of its existence, its RIGHT to exist, above and beyond what is outside the frame.

On a side note, these Ukiyu-e  prints somehow made their way to Europe in the 1800’s as wrapping paper for exotic “oriental”  antique ceramics  ( most of which were  , ironically,  mass produced contemporaneously to satisfy the booming European mania for Asian bric-a-bracs ). The Impressionists avidly collected them, and the fresh,  floating perspectives and assymetry , and “photographic ” qualities of these prints influenced their paintings, and I suspect, also influenced the development of photography which was in its infancy at this time ( early photographs aped oil paintings and only later found itself ). Whistler mirrored  numerous  Ukiyu-e  compositions for  his paintings, and Van Gogh famously copied several Hiroshige images himself. This kind of art was a not so insignificant catalyst for the development of “modern art”.

Perhaps Hiroshige was simply so ahead of his time, a genius . But this image, for instance, is a staggering  tour-de-force. This aerial perspective did not become common until the 20th century, with planes up in the air. The perspective isn’t merely the  eagle’s- it’s as if  the air itself grew eyes. How did a Japanese artist from the early 1800’s  envision  this?

Can you hear the flapping of wings, and the whispering silence as the eagle banks?






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