In 1830s Japan, there was no such thing as a recreational road trip. The shogunate tightly controlled travel, and many people never left their home towns. But the cities were becoming prosperous and the members of a new middle class had the money to indulge their curiosity. The next best thing to traveling was collecting ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) — prints of the places they would never see in person.
Painter and printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige, whose official job was Edo Castle fire warden, wasn’t especially privileged. But in 1832, he was invited to join a lordly procession from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto. He sketched the stops along the way, and two years later published “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.” It beautifully depicted the scenery along the route but also everyday life on the road.
The entire series is on display at George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Gallery as “Along the Eastern Road.” (The title uses a partial translation of “Tokaido,” which means “east sea way.”) The selection is made up of 56 prints, including ones from the trip’s two end points, as well as one from a set published in 1855. The original was such a success that Hiroshige (and a protege) did it again, the second time in a vertical format.
“The Fifty-Three Stations” displayed places most residents of Japan’s major cities had never visited: Mitsuke, where travelers headed toward Edo would get their first glimpse of Mount Fuji; Okazaki, with its long, curving bridge; and Mariko, a teahouse extolled by the poet Basho. The teahouse is reportedly still in operation, although most of the other landmarks have vanished. The hills were bulldozed for highways and railroads — including the Tokaido shinkansen, or bullet train — and the bays were filled to create developable land.
Two decades after the earliest of these prints, Japan was forced to open to the West. That’s when the work of Hiroshige and his great contemporary Katsushika Hokusai began to reach European and American artists. James Whistler, Vincent van Gogh and many others were delighted by the surprising compositions, vertiginous perspectives and woodblock techniques unlike anything they’d seen. Japanese printmakers rendered most objects with black lines but also “painted” with intricate overlays of colored inks.
“The Fifty-Three Stations” was preceded and influenced by Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” in which the sacred volcano is often barely discernible. This mirrors the Japanese tradition of shakkei (“borrowed scenery”), in which gardens are arranged around views of landmarks outside their confines.
In his depictions of the Tokaido and its travelers, Hiroshige plays a similar game, with people as well as landscape. A feudal lord’s procession is scarcely noticeable amid the snow of “Kameyama,” under a narrow strip of blue sky. In “Hakone,” the viewer gazes down at travelers whose hats are the principal evidence of their presence. (It’s “Hakone” that’s also exhibited here in a vertical orientation.)
The countryside is untamed, with wide rivers and rocky buttes that owe as much to Chinese landscape painting as to the actual vistas. The weather is equally wild, and the methods Hiroshige uses to convey it are among his most remarkable. One of the set’s most celebrated prints, “Shono,” uses gray streaks to conjure the rain pelting two groups of travelers as they pass. In “Mishima,” backdrop features are printed in blue without black outlines, suggesting the blurring effect of fog. Hiroshige also painted with absence, as in “Hamamatsu,” where unprinted paper represents smoke from a fire.
The vantage points are often dramatic but attainable by nimble hikers. The artist never offers the Godlike perspective of European painting. Indeed, he often places objects in the foreground, blocking the view as real things do in the real world. A tree and a stone lantern partly obscure the view into an inn in “Akasaka,” and the right side of “Yoshida” is defined by a castle covered in scaffolding, swarmed by workers repairing the walls and roofs.
Such details are everywhere along the curving road. Bearers struggle to heft sumo wrestlers, a man chases his blown-away hat and female tavern owners literally pull potential customers toward their business. The human comedy plays out on a series of grand stages.
The prints in the exhibition, organized by the Reading Public Museum in Pennsylvania, are somewhat worn, and many show the effects of having been folded, probably into a book. But the lines and colors remain strong, as does Hiroshige’s vision. He fixed for all time the shifting details and fleeting lives on this pathway through the floating world.
George Washington University Luther W. Brady Gallery, 805 21st St. NW, Second Floor. 202-994-1525. gwu.edu/~bradyart/brady/exhibitions.html .
Dates: Through Dec. 2.