Hiroshige's 19Th-Century `Postcards' Offer Striking Snippets Of Japanese Life

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"Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido," by Ando Hiroshige, through Nov. 28, at the Bryan Ohno Gallery, 155 S. Main St., Seattle. 206-667-9572.

If photography had existed in 1834, Ando Hiroshige may not have created his 53 views along the Tokaido, a highway that led down the Pacific coast and through the mountains, connecting the cities of Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto. The woodblock prints, made from Hiroshige's sketches, are similar to modern postcard scenes, featuring snippets of typical activity at inns and restaurants along the route, famous views of bridges and craggy coastline, and, of course, the ever-splendid Mount Fuji. The prints were sold, inexpensively at the time, as mementos of the well-traveled road.

There the comparison ends, because Hiroshige's prints - unlike most postcards - are marvels of composition and imagination. The artist had seen examples of European painting and incorporated his own notion of perspective into scenes that were based in fact but embellished with gorgeous imaginary details.

One of my favorites is a view of a wayside restaurant in a village famed for its special yam soup. Hiroshige shows us an ordinary scene, a group of travelers clustered about waiting for a bite to eat. But the artist distinguished his picture by setting the village under a soupy yam-pink evening sky - a witty symbol of the place.

The full series of Hiroshige's "Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido," on loan from the Daiichi Museum in Nagoya, Japan, is being shown for the first time in Seattle at the Bryan Ohno Gallery. The woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), are from the first printing of the series in 1834 and are well-preserved.

In later years, Hiroshige - perpetually in need of money - pulled thousands of prints off his original woodblocks, until the images became murky and faint. The work in this exhibit is not for sale, but Caroline Staley Fine Prints, also in Pioneer Square, has a large selection of classical and contemporary Japanese prints available, including works by Hiroshige. A large collection of Hirsoshige's prints will be featured there in December.

"Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido," completed early in Hiroshige's career, remained one of the artist's favorite projects. His farewell poem, shortly before his death in 1858 read:

"I leave my brush in the East / And set forth on my journey. / I shall see the famous places in the Western Land."

The "Western Land" meant the Buddhist paradise, but also refered to the journey west on the Tokaido to Kyoto.

A trip along the famous highway, a two-week journey that Hiroshige made in 1832 with government officials, would run into all kinds of weather. To the Japanese, the changing seasons are a source of reverence, and harsh weather isn't a seen as a drawback, but a dramatic enhancement to the scenery.

In one instance Hiroshige depicted a mountain landscape softened under a thick parka of snow. The exact location of his site has never been found and may not have existed outside the artist's imagination. Besides, there couldn't have been snow at the time of year he was traveling - but he knew it made for a more striking picture.

Rain is a whole subject in itself. It slants down from the heavens in long silk threads, riding on the wind and pummeling the bare-legged peasants in the countryside who clutch their bamboo hats and lean into it like dancers.

The most daring and superbly complex composition in the series is built on rain. "No. 46 Shono" grows from slanted layers of shadowy bamboo forest crossed by a steep incline in the foreground. Two porters carrying a palanquin struggle up the slope, their passenger completely shrouded against the rain except for one hand, hanging on tight. Two travelers scurry down the hill, leaning their umbrella against the wind. Everything in the picture is about opposition: a crisscross of diagonals that fills the image with turbulent motion and draws us into the feeling of the storm.

Seeing this series of Hiroshige prints would be a delightful experience if it weren't for the inexcusably bad installation. Some prints are hung three deep, some two, others in single rows - on one wall there's just a single print - with no common level for the eye to follow and no logic to the arrangement except for numerical order. The delicate aesthetic of the prints gets trampled in this hodgepodge: It's a roller-coaster ride, made worse by the distracting jazz recordings playing in the background.

Nevertheless, "Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido" is well worth a visit. Hiroshige is a master of ukiyo-e and one of the Japanese printmakers whose work influenced European painters in the late 19th century. Monet, particularly, was smitten with the strong graphics and lyrical treatment of nature he found in the prints, and kept a collection of them.