What happened on the Tokaido Road stayed on the Tokaido Road. By 1830, Japan's heavily traveled eastern highway had built a reputation for offering 300 miles of sensual pleasures to travelers en route to Kyoto from Tokyo.
But not every Japanese could make the journey. Instead, the masses snapped up woodblock printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige's famed pictorial travelogue "The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido." The 55-print series (that extra pair of prints depicted the route's endpoints) rendered the road's travelers -- imperious sumo wrestlers, desperate geishas and spindly-legged messengers -- in quirky perspectives and every kind of weather. People loved it.
That career-making series, published around 1833-34, forms the core of "East Meets West: Hiroshige at the Phillips Collection," an exhibition that opened yesterday at the Dupont Circle museum.
While residing in Duncan Phillips's house, Hiroshige's prints are making nice with the locals. Alongside the Tokaido series, Phillips assistant curator Susan Frank has hung Japanese-influenced work by 23 Western artists from her museum's impressionist, postimpressionist and early modern collection. For the duration of this show, the likes of Pierre Bonnard and Augustus Vincent Tack make smart, if unsurprising, pairings with Hiroshige's pictures. The couplings bolster the well-worn idea that European painters borrowed liberally from Japanese styles as they dug their way out of a 19th-century realist rut.
Not every show is a scholar's show, nor should it be. This one doesn't break new ground, but it does threaten to cause some confusion. Relating Hiroshige's series to Phillips's own collection forces the fudging of certain facts: Not all the Western artists on view can trace a direct link back to Hiroshige or his Tokaido Road series. No doubt several artists here felt the influence of Japan through Katsushika Hokusai, Hiroshige's better-known artistic elder. Yet others received the Japanese influence by looking at European painting. The weakness of "East Meets West" is its positioning of Hiroshige as a stand-in for a broader category of Japanese woodblock prints. The links made here are mostly generalizations that diminish the show's impact and, at times, prove misleading.
That said, the exhibition offers plenty of satisfying juxtapositions alongside the happy privilege of viewing the Tokaido series in its Washington debut. To curator Frank's credit, her sometimes risky pairings will offer plenty for the public to enjoy and debate. Her show allows us to tease out the hallmarks of the Japanese print -- the flatness, graphic punch, minimalism, curious viewpoints and cropped figures -- just as Western artists did upon seeing them for the first time in the 1860s.
Hiroshige was dead by the time his prints hit Paris. Born in Tokyo in 1797, he was orphaned at 12 and began studying printing and painting. He devoted his early career to turning out popular scenes of kabuki theater, courtesans and samurai -- all the rage among printmakers of his day. Around 1830, he is said to have secured a spot in the ruling shogun's entourage traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. The popular series made him one of the most admired printmakers of his day. He continued to turn out popular prints until his death in 1858.
For a landscape artist, Hiroshige included a lot of people. A turn around the Phillips makes clear that humans are as much a part of these pictures as mountains and rice paddies. What made his work revolutionary wasn't a pure devotion to landscape. Instead, the simple fact that his depictions included anything other than close-ups of people, the norm until this work was published, garnered him a reputation as a landscape master.
The Phillips devotes just one room exclusively to Hiroshige, and it's here that we get a closer look at his style. His great "Mishima -- Morning Mist" print hangs here; so many Europeans admired the work for its gentle washes of blue and gray indicating landscape receding into the thick, wet morning air. Here, too, hang examples of the artist's near-caricatured renderings of people -- he simplified eyes to dots or dashes hovering above pudgy noses; the heads they're attached to are big and bulbous. The comic scene "Goyu-Women Soliciting Travelers" shows teahouse hostesses literally grabbing travelers by the neck in hopes of drumming up business.
Elsewhere in this exhibition, we're assigned the pleasurably didactic task of compare and contrast. Bonnard's 1897 "Narrow Street in Paris," detailing a claustrophobic Parisian street, hangs next to Hiroshige's impression of a narrow, treacherous mountain pass in "Okabe-Utsu Mountain." Two seemingly unrelated subjects are bridged by a similar point of view: that of a bird's eye, if that eye were equipped with a wide-angle lens. Bonnard borrowed Hiroshige's plunging viewpoint and panoramic effects and applied them to an urban street scene. Such combinations of varied viewpoints would mark Western painting's entry into modernism.
Another pairing points to clashes of East and West. Canadian-born American painter Ernest Lawson's 1913 depiction of the heavy masonry of the Harlem River Bridge shares a similar compositional structure to Hiroshige's rendition of a spindly, wooden bridge on the Tokaido. That the style one artist used to depict a rural road traveled by pedestrians, packhorses and palanquins would be applied to a landmark of American industrial power proves quite a curious sight.
Then there's Paul Cezanne's 1886-87 "Mont Sante-Victoire," a Phillips Collection treasure that rarely sees the inside of a storage crate. In the context of this show, the distant mountain set off to the left and encircled by tree branches pressing up against the picture plane bears remarkable resemblance to Hiroshige's "Yui-Satta Pass" depicting majestic Mount Fuji in the distance. Cezanne himself claimed to have hated Japanese prints, but one suspects the Frenchman protested too much.
A few juxtapositions aren't so convincing. I'm less inclined to view Oskar Kokoschka's large city view of Prague as reminiscent of Hiroshige's style -- brushwork this frenzied and violent has nothing to do with the surface calm of Japanese work. Yes, Kokoschka is known to have seen Japanese prints while teaching at the Dresden Academy after World War II, and yes, the scene has that bird's-eye view you see in Japanese prints. Still, it's a stretch.
But disagreeing with this show is part of the fun. The Japanese-European cross-pollination of the late 19th century was rich enough to produce some stellar hybrids of East and West. Here, the Phillips offers an opportunity to observe their conception.