Aren’t Christmas cards great! Not only do you get lovely messages from friends, but you get some beautiful art too! This card depicting a scene from a print by Utagawa Hiroshige caught my eye.
It is a section of a larger work in which two woman stand either side of this scene, looking beyond their garden where the river winds round the mountain and past the villagers, and it is all covered in snow. Hiroshige was masterful at depicting fleeting moments – weather and its effects which were transient and which created a certain atmosphere that would soon pass – a ‘floating world’ rather than a fixed world. His works then, are about time passing, as well as about place.
Notice how he uses bold lines – the most basic element of art – to create the details, lines that are very economical at conveying the objects in his pictures: a few strokes make a tree; swiftly made shapes become bushes and leaves; grey splotches are snowflakes still falling. This landscape section of the whole print has the hallmarks of traditional Japanese perspective which is horizontal rather than the receding perspective of Western art. Notice how the trees are all the same height – the ones on the top of the mountain and behind, are the same height as the trees in front of the mountain. Similarly the houses in front of the river are the same size as those the other side, and the moored boats are the same size as the one floating down the river despite the distance between them. These devices allow your eye to wander through the scene rather than being guided by linear perspective to a vanishing point where the illusion of depth is created by objects being depicted ever smaller to suggest that they are further away. On the right hand side of the mountain, notice how the horizon line is absent, but rather the grey snow-laden sky gives way to some pale mist: this ‘mist recession’ is another device for creating depth.
The colours Hiroshige uses in his woodblock prints are so effective because of their restraint and subtlety – the slate grey merging into dove grey that pulls back behind the white mountain. The blues in his works are especially striking – his layering of Prussian blue create an intensity – sometimes at the water’s edge such as here in this painting, and at other times framing the high skyline or the horizon line, sometimes creating a sense of depth that seems baffling but always mesmerising. The use of this colour is one of the markers of the West’s influence in Japanese art: it was exported to Japan from the 1820’s onwards and had the advantage of not fading in the way that vegetable pigments were prone to. This colour, as well as the foregrounding of the women in the complete picture which give a sense of depth according to linear perspective, show that Hiroshige embraced some of the influences of Western art, while maintaining Japanese art traditions also.
Beautiful art! And Happy Christmas greetings to you all!