I WAS THREE rooms into "East Meets West: Hiroshige at the Phillips Collection" before it occurred to me that the artist whose color woodcut prints are being spotlighted can't really do faces.
This is less a criticism than a compliment. For what Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) was really, really good at was landscape. So good, in fact, that it's convenient, if not downright easy, to ignore the fact that there are lots of people in his snapshots of scenery along the Tokaido Road, the ancient, eastern coastal highway that connected Edo, or modern-day Tokyo, to Kyoto. Not infrequently depicting travelers, the 55 works in Hiroshige's series "The 53 Stations of the Tokaido" -- the two extra scenes come from each of the route's endpoints -- are compositionally virtuosic.
Cartoonish at best, clumsy at their worst and most expressive when their faces are turned away from the viewer by the force of wind or the steep perspective imposed by the artist's elevated point of view, Hiroshige's people are, if not quite afterthoughts, at least far from the point. Sometimes they're reduced to the size of bugs, as in "Hakone -- The Lake," an impressive, artificially compressed view of an almost Wayne Thiebaudesque mountain rising above a procession of people picking their way through a steep pass. Sometimes, as in "Akasaka -- Inn With Serving Maids," they're just goofy.
Of course, Hiroshige was less interested in humanity and its foibles than in the formal poetics of landscape, though there is a fair amount of humor and drama here. One thing Hiroshige is known for: his technical mastery at rendering such atmospheric effects as fog, rain, snow, wind, dusk and seasonal changes in light. To that end, I would have liked more light shed on the process of bokashi (or gradation printing) that the artist was so adept at but about which there is little in the way of explanation. More obvious is the way in which Hiroshige created movement within a static picture plane, seducing us into believing that a world exists beyond its edges.
Often employing the trick of crisscrossing diagonals, as in "Shimada -- Suruga Bank of Oi River," in which the water slashes across the frame one way as the trail of human figures traversing it pulls our gaze in the other, Hiroshige draws our attention deep into the picture even as he pushes it outward by cropping out elements at the edges -- such as whoever is holding the kite string on the far left of "Kakegawa -- View of Akiba Mountain."
At first blush, it may sound far-fetched for curator Susan Behrends Frank to claim, as the exhibition's wall text does, that compositions such as these were "a revelation to Western artists." It's not so easy, though, to come up with Western artists who before the early 1830s, when these prints were made, were utilizing such techniques. If it only seems as if we have always known that there was a world outside the edges of a picture, it may be partly because of how Hiroshige -- and those in the West who were influenced by him -- have conditioned our modern eyes to respond to the airless picture boxes we now look at in museums.
Which brings me to my next point: As the name suggests, "East Meets West" isn't just about Hiroshige, but about Hiroshige in the context of those artists he -- and other Japanese artists -- influenced. Hence, the Phillips has thrown into the mix 40 other paintings and drawings from its collection that either betray a Japanese aesthetic or address similar subjects. Artists well known and obscure -- from James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Paul Gaugin to Sadakichi Hartmann and Nicholas de Stael -- illustrate just how powerful an impact Hiroshige's formal techniques had on modernist artists of the West who discovered them.
Except that, almost across the board, the examples of Western art that the Phillips has chosen to hang side by side with Hiroshige pale in comparison to the earlier pictures. It isn't even so much that the connection between the works is often tenuous -- Arthur Dove's blocky abstraction "Rain or Snow" has virtually nothing to do with Hiroshige aside from a shared interest in precipitation -- but that, almost without exception, the Hiroshiges hold the eye longer, and with more seductive power, than their neighbors.
EAST MEETS WEST: HIROSHIGE AT THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION -- Through Sept. 4 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-387-2151. www.phillipscollection.org. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 5; Thursday evenings to 8:30; Sundays noon to 5. Admission $8; $6 for seniors and students; ages 18 and younger free. Tickets are available at the museum and through Ticketmaster by calling 800-551-7328 or visiting Ticketmaster.com.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Thursday and Sept. 1 at 2 -- Introductory gallery talk on the exhibition.
Thursday at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "In the Tradition of the Samurai -- Hiroshige's Culture of the Warrior."
Aug. 11 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "The Enchantment of the East -- Duncan Phillips's Travels in Japan."
Aug. 18 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "The Ancient Path -- Hiroshige's Travels on the Tokaido Road."
Aug. 25 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Revealing the Floating World -- Japanese Aesthetics and the Art of Hiroshige."
Sept. 1 at 6 and 7 -- Gallery talk: "Placid Beauty -- Hiroshige's Images of Lakes."