Artist of the Floating World


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At a certain time in his life, the French impressionist painter Toulouse-Lautrec, for reasons known only to him, took to dressing in the clothes of a Japanese samurai warlord, bought at auction. Paul Gauguin thought enough of his colleague’s strange apparel to mention it several times in his correspondence, noting that he had no idea of what Toulouse was up to. But Toulouse-Lautrec’s garb signaled one of the impressionists’ few acts of open homage to another school of rebels, worshipped by Whistler, Van Gogh, Monet and Seurat, as well as by Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec themselves: the ukiyo-e artists of 19th-century Japan.

The ukiyo-e school, born in the Buddhist tradition, offered “pictures of the floating world,” the world of sensory impression and experience that we take to be real, as unadorned as an Ansel Adams photograph. Its practitioners worked almost exclusively on publishers’ commissions, and most of them, naturally, were dirt-poor. One of the greatest of the ukiyo-e painters was Hokusai, a magnificent artist who toward the end of his life was reduced to begging for his daily meals. Another, equally poor, was Hiroshige, who died 155 years ago, just before the period of Japanese history that Mark Ravina depicts in his fine biography The Last Samurai.

Born Ando Tokutaro in 1797, Hiroshige (the pseudonym, one of many he used, is thought to mean “made mad by water”) was the son of the fire warden of Edo (now Tokyo) Castle. He inherited the position and worked at it for two decades, secretly studying woodblock printing with the Zen artist Toyohiro, who taught him Western techniques of landscape and perspective that were new to and even forbidden in Japan. Hiroshige soon surpassed his teacher, and his collection of woodblock prints, Fifty-Three Stations on the Tokaido (the road from Tokyo to Kyoto), and later his Eight Views from Omi, established him as a master of depicting everyday life.

Hiroshige’s work became known in Europe almost immediately after his death, deeply influencing those who would later become the impressionists. In the United States, Hiroshige’s work received less attention, so that when Crosby Stuart Noyes, publisher of the Washington Star, donated 100 Hiroshige prints to the Library of Congress in 1906, they were buried and forgotten in the vaults. Rediscovered, those prints were first published nearly 30 years ago as The Sketchbooks of Hiroshige, a book that, reissued in 2001, is now out of print but fairly easy to find in the secondhand market.

Hiroshige’s favorite subjects—the banks of the Sumida River, Mount Fuji, samurais and geishas, travelers, common people at their daily work, actors in the Kabuki theater, characters from Japanese folklore, animals and fishes—are abundant in the collection. Through those images, Hiroshige continues to exercise the attention and admiration of our best artists; Barry Moser’s roiling wave, the woodblock print that graces the opening chapter of the Arion Press/University of California Press edition of Moby-Dick, is a descendant of the tidal bore in Hiroshige’s “Waves, Sail, and Flying Crane.” It’s time for a revival of the artist of the floating world—and for a new edition of the Sketchbooks to work its ways with the next generation of Western artists.


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