Hiroshige (1797-1858) Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (Toto no meisho): Shiba Shinmei Shrine, 1834
Recession… that’s the big challenge for the easel painter and especially the landscape painter. The painting is flat… the surface of the canvas is as flat as a table and yet the frame is a window. A window frame that had the potential to open onto a vista of – well, pretty much anything. Mountains, rivers, streets, temples, lakes… anything really. The challenge is recession, how to make that flat plane open itself up into a believable space that you could walk through and into. That language that was developed in the renaissance in Italy and especially in Northern Europe became the pictorial reality that we live with today. The pictorial illusion of the renaissance painting is that which was first adopted by the earliest European photographers weighed down as they were with all those centuries of tradition and the high regard for the classical world and ‘rightness’ of the masters.
How ironic that the easy facility of the photographer to mimic the landscape painter became the driver to finish off the effort at illusion and begin the slow experiment of modernism. That’s all in the west of course. Take a look at the four pictures on this page. The Hiroshige of 1834, the landscape by John Martin of the same year, and the photograph from 1842 by Fox Talbot and the Cezanne landscape of 40 years later.
The Martin and the photograph use a few basic tricks to make the window ‘open’ – John Martin has the trees like a colonnade ‘leading’ the eye into the simple, one point perspective. The scale of the middle distance figures is carefully calibrated to make sense of the relative distance of the church tower. The photograph by Fox Talbot uses the same corny old tricks… . The buildings on the left and the Greek urns on the right open the foreground space and again the colonnade of tall trees and the building adding scale and distance to the simple, recessive perspective.
And then there is the Hiroshige! Unencumbered by the centuries of western tradition and the obedience to classical style… and that awful word ‘Masters’. There’s no corny, looming buildings with railings getting closer together, no snaking path, no big, little and tiny tricks, no perspective… one point or otherwise, just layers of deft drawing. Hiroshige drew what he saw and used visual signs to make pictures… simple as that. Cezanne and the impressionists saw that too in his and other Japanese print makers, hence the fresh, original revolution of modernism in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the subsequent explosion of creativity… there’s nothing in the Cezanne that isn’t in the Hiroshige (even a sense of colour) except a gauche clumsiness that would in fact bedevil modernism for a century.