With “live life” enjoyment a couple of Saturdays ago, I visited the Norton Simon Museum here in Pasadena expressly to see its current exhibit “Hiroshige: Visions of Japan.” The Norton Simon has an extensive collection of Japanese wood block prints with particular emphasis on Hiroshige’s works, in part because it acquired the collection of Frank Lloyd Wright who was especially taken by this revolutionary artist.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) turned to art to supplement his meager income as a firefighter. He became known for his ability to capture nuanced landscapes in his wood carvings and to produce prints saturated with rich colors conveying great visual depth. Among other works, the Norton Simon’s impressive exhibit shows two versions of his most popular series, “The Fifty-Three Stations on the Tokaido Road.” Based on his personal observations on the 300-mile road between Edo (present-day Tokyo) with Kyoto, Hiroshige made a print of the scene at each one of the 53 travelers’ stations. Because of the popularity of this series, Hiroshige produced multiple versions of the “Tokaido Road Stations.”
What I found fascinating about the Norton Simon’s presentation was that one series was displayed along one side of the gallery, with another series mirrored along the other side of the gallery. The visitor begins with one “Station 1” on the right, and the other “Station 1” on the left, and ends with one “Station 53” on the right, and the other “Station 53” on the left. I enjoyed comparing the similarities and differences between the two versions. After a while, I had to remind myself I was looking at woodblock prints and not photographs, because Hiroshige includes such detail. The bit in the mouth of the horses being watered, the facial expressions of the silk kimono-clad ladies purveyed on palanquins across swollen streams, the early-morning yawns of the daimyo’s servants, and the geisha’s hairpins on the windowsill drew me in.
I wanted to see this exhibit because my father studied Japanese woodblock prints. During our family’s memorable trip to Japan in 1972, he invested in a Hiroshige work. I remember standing next to him in a Kyoto art emporium as he made his selection.
What I did not realize from the small landscape my father chose but saw in this exhibit was that Hiroshige had a humorous and wry perspective on the life of his time, the life of ukiyo-e or “the floating world.” In his foreword “The Buoyant World of Japanese Prints” to Andreas Marks’s Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterwork 1680 - 1900, Stephen Addiss explains that ukiyo-e is originally a Buddhist term referring to the transient nature of human life and experience. The ukiyo-e message, says Addiss, is to accept the flow of life without grasping: enjoy the momentary pleasures of life, much like the cherry blossoms that are all too soon lost to wind or rain. Hiroshige’s appeal is in his ability to capture life’s moments so we can savor everyday detail.
Although I needed to sit down around Station 35 and napped for the rest of the afternoon, it was altogether appropriate that I spent a couple of hours contemplating beautiful details from the end of the Tokugawa era, which allowed me to forget my “chemo world” and revel in life’s moments of that Saturday. Just a couple of weeks later, I’m feeling remarkably better – not 100%, but pretty darn normal. Just in time to start the Bortezomib this Tuesday.