“Tōkaidō. “Dreamed landscapes”, a journey on foot in the Japan of yesteryear

To visit Dream landscapes, the new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), which presents prints by Andō Hiroshige, we must imagine ourselves in ancient Japan. A Japan where people traveled mainly on foot, and where the shogun lived in Edo, which today is called Tokyo, even though Kyoto was the capital of the country. The shogun therefore required his local lords, the daimyos, to spend every other year, surrounded by their samurai, in Edo, in a form of pilgrimage.

These biannual 500-kilometer epics inspired the artist Hiroshige to create a series of prints of Tōkaidō, the East Sea Road, presented at the MMFA.

The East Sea Route has 53 stations, so 53 prints. Fifty-three stops in villages with varied landscapes in Japan, to eat hamaguri clams in Kuwana, gourd strip soup in Minakuchi, taste a kashiwa moshi, sweet cupcake wrapped in an oak leaf at a tea house in Futakawa, or visit a famous inn in Ishibe.

These prints are now framed and presented on the walls of the Museum. In the past, they were bought for a few yen, like a poster, says Laura Vigo, curator of Asian art at the MMFA. And they were immensely popular. The series presented at the MMFA comes from the Museum’s collection. Previously, this series was printed in 15,000 copies. Another Hiroshige series, focusing solely on Edo (Tokyo), is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Although it enchanted Western Japonists, especially in France, at the end of the 19the century, ukiyo-e was not considered an art in Japan. In fact, Westerners discovered these prints, which were considered posters in Japan, because they were used as wrapping paper for imported ceramics.

The price of a bowl of ramen

“For me, they are objects, they are not works of art because they were not considered works of art in Japan,” continues Laura Vigo. The idea is to desecrate them a little. In fact, the idea of ​​the print as a work of art began with Japonism in France. During the second half of the 19th centurye century, the French and Europeans in general were really very interested in what was happening in Japan. And the majority of objects circulating to the West at the time were ceramics. The ceramics arrived wrapped with paper and these papers were prints. » In Japan, Hiroshige’s prints, of which 15,000 copies were reproduced, were sold for the value of $3 today, “the price of a bowl of ramen,” says M.me Vigo.

Beyond the formal appearance of these prints, the exhibition is therefore interested in their social function. Laura Vigo distinguishes the first forms of advertising. For example, in an image representing the town of Seki, we see a stall of the Senjoko company, which is a supplier of white facial powder, which was used by geishas of the time. This supplier was also responsible for government censorship, she adds, hence the interest for Hiroshige’s publisher to flatter its interests.

Japanese society in the 19th centurye century is the first truly consumerist society in the world, explains Mme Vigo. And the production of these prints was closely linked to fashion phenomena. “The quest for elegance of the merchant class, combined with more widespread education, encouraged the mass consumption of cheap prints which, in turn, gave rise to an ideal means of expression for promoting fashionable products », we read under the print dedicated to Seki.

Integrated subtexts

The prints also abound in subtexts and implicit references, which are difficult for Westerners to perceive. Hiroshige regularly references popular comic novels of the time, such as those by Jippensha Ikku. He also draws his inspiration from travel guides, since he himself would not have visited the 53 stations at the time of producing the prints.

The East Sea Route route, which at the time required two or three weeks of walking, can, in modern Japan, be completed in a few hours by TGV. The suburbs of Tokyo, once rural, are now bristling with skyscrapers, explains Laura Vigo. This is, among other things, what gives the exhibition its title. Dream landscapes. It’s a trip to the Japan of yesteryear. “These landscapes stand the test of time,” says Laura Vigo. So it’s also about looking at phenomena of the imagination, which means dreams. »

Tōkaidō. Dream landscapes

Andō Hiroshige. Curator: Laura Vigo. At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, until September 8.

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