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An Artist and His City: Unseen Individuals

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
September 13, 2020 at 3:57:14 PM PDT September 13, 2020 at 3:57:14 PM PDTth, September 13, 2020 at 3:57:14 PM PDT

In An Artist and His City: Select Works from Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Ronin Gallery explores Edo through the eyes of a local. Over the course of this exhibition, we'll take a closer look at the interaction between artist and city. Now that we have our bearings in Edo, the second installment of this series takes us to a view of Asakusa Ricefields in the midst of the Torinomachi Festival.

Hiroshige, Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857. Ronin Gallery.

In Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival, Hiroshige places the viewer not in the heart of the festival, but within a house of the nearby Yoshiwara, Edo's legalized pleasure district. Amid the strong diagonals of the window lattice, the tatami mats, and the horizon, our eyes are drawn to the round, snowy-white haunches of the cat perched on the windowsill. The stoic feline redirects our gaze towards the festival procession. Reduced by distance to monochrome, the merrymakers nearly blend into the landscape in the waning light of dusk. Beyond the horizon, Mt. Fuji echoes the cat's pale coat, stark against the sunset.

While Hiroshige's series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido is marked by a humor grounded in its travelers, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo reduces human figures to compositional elements rather that empathetic characters. Yet this does not mean that the series lacks human presence. Rather than capture the residents of the city through their likeness depicted in the frame, Hiroshige evokes their presence through the objects they have left behind. Though the actor is absent, these items create the sense that someone has left for a moment, sure to return if you watch for long enough.

Asakusa Ricefileds provides such insight–in this case, into the life of a mid-ranked courtesan of the Yoshiwara. The title of the print sets the scene. Each year, the Torinomachi Festival took place at Washi Daimyojin Shrine. During the festival, stalls erupted around shrine pedaling food and charms. Popular among these charms were kumade, or bamboo rakes. Sold in a variety of sizes, these kumade carried connotations of prosperity. While the "tori" in the festival name refers to the eagle god of the shrine, among Edo's realms of pleasure, the "tori" of Torinomachi assumed a different meaning. Playing on the verb toru, "to take," the floating world saw Torinomachi as a day to take in customers. In the Yoshiwara, this was the one day of the year that anyone could walk through its gates (usually, women were forbidden). For the courtesan houses within the Yoshiwara, this festival day marked a monbi, a day which a courtesan was required to take in a client. If she failed, she would be required to pay a fine to the brothel owner. Given the pressure of a monbi, on these days courtesans were allowed to take clients before dusk.

While this print's title and setting within the Yoshiwara evoke the scene and the identity of its actors, the objects found in the foreground provide a glimpse into the story. In the bottom left corner, two objects peek out from the patterned screen along the edge of the print. First, a set of decorative kumade hairpins. Perhaps purchased at the festival and given as a gift, the hairpins rest on the floor as a trace of an afternoon client. One of the pins has been removed from its paper, suggesting a moment of admiration. Second, a rolled paper just visible above the hairpins. When considered in combination with the towel and face-rinsing bowl placed on the windowsill, this trio of objects suggests that the courtesan has already satisfied her requirement for this monbi. Though Hiroshige provides no glimpse of the courtesan in this design, he evokes her presence through these objects. As if at any moment she might reach a delicate hand from behind the screen, lift the hairpin from the floor, and nestle it within her hair.

In the next installment of the Artist and His City series, we'll leave the intimate interior of the Yoshiwara and explore an instance of Edo's natural beauty in Moon Pine, Ueno.