by Laura Bien
Aggressive kimonoed Japanese waitresses grab passing travelers to yank them into their teahouses, scholars lounge in rural Chinese retreats, Angkor Wat broods in mist, and minimalistic seascapes glisten. Four exhibits of woodblock prints, paintings, and photographs are joined in the U-M Museum of Art's engrossing 168-piece Landscapes of Longing exhibition.
Dominating the show is Japanese printmaker Ando Hiroshige's famous 1833 masterpiece, Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. His sketches of the great Tokaido Road connecting Tokyo to Kyoto formed the basis for Fifty-three Stations, which rocketed Hiroshige to instant fame. He responded by creating sixteen to nineteen (counts vary) additional editions of the Tokaido series, all different, including one pornographic edition, Bedrooms of the Tokaido.
Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, the first of the series, is still regarded as the best. Almost never exhibited in its entirety as it is here, it depicts fifty-three stops along the 300-plus-mile road. Two additional prints show each endpoint. Each stop contains tollbooths, restaurants, teahouses, and overnight accommodations for travelers. Hiroshige combines poetic, lyrical landscapes with depictions of travelers ranging from common laborers sweating under litters to feudal lords embedded in long retinues. The result is a vivid rendition of early-nineteenth-century Japan.
Two recurring features emerge as the prints are viewed in succession. Mount Fuji grows and then shrinks as the road slowly passes its massive snowy cone, creating a feeling of distance covered. A lord's entourage appears crossing a bridge in the first print and surfaces repeatedly on the journey to Kyoto, crossing mountain passes, fording rivers, and trailing through towns, creating the illusion that the viewer, also a traveler, follows the group.
Several of the fifty-five prints are celebrated as among Hiroshige's finest works, including station 16, "Kambara" (above). Two people struggle through snow, and a third seeks shelter in a partially opened umbrella. Hiroshige's views of inclement weather are so prized that he was known as "the artist of rain, snow, and mist."
The exhibit also includes a selection of Chinese prints from the fourteenth to the early twentieth century, drawn from the UMMA's collections, depicting the idyllic countryside retreats of Chinese scholars, Buddhists, and fishermen. Kenro Izu's moody, black-and-white photographs show temples in Angkor and Angkor Wat, the latter suggesting the ancient, decaying Cambodian complex suspended in timelessness. Hiroshi Sugimoto's black-and-white photos depict cool, minimalistic seascapes. This dazzling juxtaposition of four different views of landscapes is on display at the UMMA from January 21 through April 2.
[Review published February 2006]
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