Friday, 09 December 2016

Hiroshige’s View of Mount Fuji

This exhibition of mid-19th-century woodblock prints depicts the iconic profile of Japan’s highest mountain

Written by Sandra Smith


As Japan’s sacred mountain, an active volcano with near-perfect dimensions whose celebrated snow-capped image symbolises ancient spiritual beliefs, recognised as a number-one tourist destination, Mount Fuji has been captured in art form for thousands of years.

These days visitors scale its 3,776-metre summit, and train trips between Tokyo and Osaka, weather permitting, provide photographic opportunities. During the 19th century, however, some of the most awe-inspiring depictions were the result of work by one of Japan’s great masters of woodblock print design, Utagawa Hiroshige. The Edo-born artist not only depicted the mountain in a variety of seasons and weather conditions, but his unrealistic use of colour also bowled over Western artists as, simultaneously, the influence of their compositions and techniques fashioned hitherto untried aspects in his own work. Sandra-Smith-colour-176

One of the most eye- catching features this Ashmolean exhibition celebrates is the portrait style of the majority of Hiroshige’s designs, rare during the time they were created, though favoured by this artist in the 1850s. Throughout, Mount Fuji remains the common theme. Hiroshige, however, draws the onlooker to the subject matter in a variety of ways.

In Noge And Yokohama in Musashi Province the peak is well proportioned as sailboats and a central spit of land draw the eye to the colourless mountain far away, a fine example of the use of perspective with each boat decreasing in size from those in the foreground.

Prints such as Koganei in Musashi Province offer a more intriguing view. Here a cropped tree dominating the image also frames Mount Fuji through its split trunk. The great depth in this image is complemented by a layering effect suggesting a classical influence.

Adorning the few people featured, conical hats echo the shape of the venerated mountain. At the same time the tiny scale of individuals exacerbates the enormity of Fuji. Colours in many images take a back seat to the subject, though in the Mountains of Izu Province is a celebration of Prussian blue which became commercially viable during the 1840s. One of his three more playful designs, in landscape, includes a View Of Suruga Street in which a glimpse of a bustling shopping area and textile shop – the forerunner of Mitsukoshi department store – offers a contrast to the distant Fuji.

Hiroshige travelled extensively and, although he also accessed gazetteers, first-hand experience gave him accurate knowledge of the terrain. As a result these delicate yet powerful woodblock prints signify the spiritual and artistic importance and beauty of Japan’s iconic peak, captured from so many angles.

Until 26 March at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford: 01865-278002; www.ashmolean.org 


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