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Hiroshige takes modern viewers to ancient Japan

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WASHINGTON - The Japanese called it "The Floating World." The reference is to the world of travel, the unfolding revelations of unexplored places, magnificent vistas, unexpected adventures, curiosities and all the transient pleasures to be had in following the open road.

Nearly two centuries ago, the Floating World to be found on the ancient feudal road from Edo to Kyoto inspired a masterpiece of a series that became one of the most popular artistic endeavors in Japanese history and, in Western terms, one of the most influential.

Paul Cezanne, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Prendergast, John Twachtman and even Oskar Kokoschka are among the European and American artists who fell under the series' spell and took instruction from it. Now on view here at Washington's prestigious Phillips Collection through Sept. 4, the series is working its magic again. (For a comparison, repair to the museum's Web site,

The artist is Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), a profoundly prolific printmaker who produced some 4,500 individual works before dying of cholera at age 62. His series is called "The 53 Stations of the Tokaido." Undertaken when he was all of 35, it was the masterwork of his career and established his lifelong popularity and fame.

"Hiroshige's work is considered to be among the greatest of all Japanese landscape prints," said Phillips Director Jay Gates.

Though times and surroundings certainly have changed, the ancient highway still runs along the eastern coast of Japan from the imperial capital at Kyoto some 300 miles to Edo, now Tokyo, where the politically dominant and militarily powerful Shogun ruled.

The 53 stations were the stopping places along the route (I refrain from calling them the Holiday Inns of their day), offering, in addition to toll-collecting stations, lodging, food and refreshment, as well as quarters for one's horses and porters, if one were a mounted samurai or wealthy traveler and had them. Most people traveled the road on foot, however: soldiers, priests, pilgrims, merchants, peasants, poets and artists among them.

The works are not simply the highly stylized, traditional Japanese landscape prints with which we are all so familiar. Seeking to replicate this extraordinary journey as seen by the ordinary traveler, Hiroshige took a very representational approach to his widely varying subject, creating inviting perspectives and a very strong sense of place.

We find ourselves pausing to view bridges, houses, temples, forests, mountains, sacred gardens, inns, teahouses, souvenir shops and sweeping views of the sea and mountains. They are seen at all times of day and in the different seasons, with snow or rain falling in some images and many lovely moonscapes.

We also mingle with many of the widely varying folk encountered along the road, seeing them as much as they must have looked and doing what they must have done as they made their way, though depictions sometimes bordered on caricatures.

"Hiroshige was the first Japanese artist to express the humor of travel," said exhibition curator Susan Behrends Frank.

"His prints include amusing and fanciful distortions and exaggerations of the people depicted."

Hiroshige was not one to rest on his laurels.

He went on to do such series as "Sixty Nine Stations of the Kiso Highway," "Eight Views of Lake Biwa," "Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji" and "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo." The latter, one of his last series, also has been described as a masterpiece, but most of his late work was considered substandard. His popularity meant demand, and he more or less just cranked a lot of stuff out.

Nowadays, the old Tokaido route is largely traveled by rail. There are a few stops and tourist attractions along the way that are reminiscent of the road's glory days, including the hot springs at the Hakone resort, Mt. Fuji National Park, the views of Ise Bay near Toba and the Forest at Ise Shrine.

But this is the era of bullet trains and monumental suburban sprawl. Sony's Tokyo is certainly not the Shogun's Edo.

No matter. Hiroshige has made it possible for us to travel the Tokaido Road through the rest of time.


(Michael Kilian is a lifestyle columnist for The Chicago Tribune. Write to him at the Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau, 1325 G St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C., 20005.)


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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