The Japanese landscape draws countless visitors to Japan each year. From brilliant crimson leaves of the fall to the snow-tipped peak of Mount Fuji, the natural beauty of Japan enchants its visitors. During the 19th century, these famous sights, whether natural or man-made, became a popular subject of the woodblock print medium. As the ruling Tokugawa shogunate loosened travel restrictions, Edo’s merchant class indulged in a newly authorized wanderlust. Though some set out on roads like the famous Tokaido for a taste of adventure first hand, many fed their excitement for travel through meisho-e, or “famous place pictures.” This national buzz for travel propelled the genre to the height of popularity.
A far cry from the idealized and atmospheric traditional Japanese landscape genre, meisho-e present recognizable scenes of Edo-period Japan, inviting their viewer to capture a memory or revel in his or her travel aspirations. Though in the world of painting the concept of meisho drew on Heian-period allusions, the printed medium shifted its focus to the world at hand, in all its humor, splendor, and excitement. Many woodblock print artists produced meisho-e, but two master artists are most closely associated with these prints. Hokusai and Hiroshige defined the genre, trading imagined landscapes for the intimacy of life on the road and the natural beauty of Japan. Their work carries an unmistakable sensitivity to the human experience and a deference to the power of nature. Just as these works inspired the Impressionists in the 19th century, they continue to awe viewers today.
With the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the subsequent Meiji restoration, the genre of meisho-e waned with the medium at large. As woodblock print artists struggled to find their place amidst new technologies such as photography and lithography, they sought a new role for the woodblock print in a changing Japan. As the market for woodblock prints plummeted with the domestic audience, interest in woodblock prints soared in Europe and the United States. Artists such as Monet and Whistler avidly collected these images of the "floating world" and drew profound inspiration from the innovative compositions of artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai. Though foreign interest did inspire a reconsideration of the medium within Japan, the woodblock print found its modern voice through Shin Hanga (New Prints) and Sosaku Hanga (Creative Prints). Meisho-e found a distinctly modern voice and new masters through the Shin Hanga movement.
The landscapes of the early 20th century bloom from the union of memory and modernity. Drawing influence from the masterpieces of Hokusai and Hiroshige, artists such as Kawase Hasui and Hiroshi Yoshida revived the art of the landscape print. Influenced by the Impressionists, these artists considered the effects of varying light and individual mood, capturing a spectrum of time and season - not only in Japan, but abroad as well. Simultaneously, a growing sense of realism permeates these works. Nonetheless, even with their Western influence, geographic reach, and modern marketing, their ukiyo-e roots are undeniable. Though separated by a century, these distinct approaches to the Japanese landscape resonate in their tangible infatuation with Japan and its people.
Curious to see these 19th and 20th century masters side-by-side? Ronin Gallery invites you on a journey through Japan with the exhibition Sea to Mountain: Landscapes of Japan. Featuring the work of Hokusai, Hiroshige, Hasui, and Yoshida, this exhibition explores the tradition of meisho-e through both ukiyo-e and modern masters. From white sails in misty harbors to lush mountain passes, these works capture the unique and unyielding beauty of Japanese landscape, from shore to peak. The show will be on view in the gallery until June 30th. Can't make it to the gallery? Explore the online exhibition here.