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Japanese Interlude

Posted on April 13, 2014 by Louis

This week while sketching these Scots pines in the woods, I was reminded of my student days in Japan where I would see many similar pines that were so typical of that country.

When I was at college in Japan, I became familiar with traditional Japanese art. One intriguing aspect about Japan is that it closed itself off for almost 250 years until c.1860, and as a result, the country and its art evolved with very limited influence from abroad. During this period the art of the wood-block print flourished and became popular as prints were sold to growing numbers of tourists. Some pictures denoted famous actors or beautiful women, others landscapes.

The 53 stations of the Tokaido, No 46, Kameyama, Hiroshige, 1833

It is the landscapes and more particularly their composition which interest me. They can be classical, occasionally quirky, and now and then a source of ideas. Below are a few works of Hiroshige (1797–1858) whose prints are some of the best known.

This composition is a classical diagonal line with some foreground, middle ground and background. With woodblock prints, I find snow scenes tend to work well as the muted shadows usually found in the prints are similar to the reality of overcast snowy weather. Hiroshige cleverly places a glimpse of a house top right as the destination of the toiling climbers.

This “maple tree” print is slightly odd as the boughs frame the view,  which is an interesting idea, but the leaves obstruct it (I find their hanging in the middle of the horizon irritating and would prefer them slightly to the right). They are, however accurately drawn and the colourist has perfectly captured the slow change in hue across the blades when they fade.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge circa 1872-5 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 68 x 51cm , oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London

Some of the impressionists and other artists such as Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha were influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. James Abbott McNeil Whistler appears to have used the composition of this view of Kyobashi (above) for his portrayal of Battersea bridge (left). Both Whistler and Hiroshige use the blues of the evening light with occasional flecks of off-white or yellow to denote points of light in the distance, and place a figure below the bridge to give a better idea of size.

The next print is all diagonals, parallel lines and repetition. Diagonals are tricky if they are the basis for a composition – the concept was often used in the art of the Counter-Reformation – as it can give a heavy and complex look. Generally, a landscape artist should avoid parallel lines (the driving rain here); variety is preferable. There are also the serried ranks of trees behind the figures which are repetitive and repetition is one more thing to be avoided mostly. All the same, this bold composition does seem to work, so maybe I should tear up my rule book…occasionally.

The 53 stations of the Tokaido, No 45, Shono, Hiroshige, 1833

Below is another view of Edo but very much what we expect of a Japanese print  with the pines, thatched roofs, rice paddies, Mt. Fuji in the distance and wide-brimmed hatted workers treading heavily along a winding road. There is depth, circularity of composition in the foreground and variety in the lines.

Grandpa’s Teahouse, Meguro, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, No. 84, Hiroshige. 1857

Here are a few old photos of Japan a few years after Hiroshige’s death, when it was extraordinarily picturesque (it still is in places, with plenty of pines like the ones I painted, but there is an awful lot of concrete about now). They show Hiroshige was hardly exaggerating when he produced his landscapes.


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