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“East Meets West: Hiroshige at the Phillips Collection”

It’s no secret that Japanese prints have inspired Western painters. After the shogun’s sequestered realm was pried open in 1853, the prints’ off-center compositions, large areas of flat color, and eloquent blank spaces caused a sensation in Europe, shaping the styles of Manet, Cassatt, Gauguin, and many more, directly and indirectly, on unto color-field painting. Perhaps the most bewitched was American-born Londoner James Abbott McNeill Whistler—sometimes called “the Japanese of Chelsea”—who depicted items from his collection of Japanese screens and prints in the backgrounds of his paintings.

In Washington, Whistler is the province of the Freer Gallery of Art, so he’s barely represented in “East Meets West: Hiroshige at the Phillips Collection.” The central words in the exhibition’s title come after the colon: The show matches a complete set of Utagawa Hiroshige’s 1833– 1834 wood-block-print cycle, The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido, with Japan-struck pieces from the Phillips’ holdings. Examples of the Japanese prints known as ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) are regularly exhibited in the District—a show of work by Hiroshige’s immediate precursor, Katsushika Hokusai, opens next March at the Sackler Gallery—but this is a rare opportunity to see an entire series at one time. And the Western pieces that flank the wood blocks represent not the best examples of Hiroshige’s influence, as they might elsewhere, but museum founder Duncan Phillips’ own sensibility.

“East Meets West” can be approached on its own terms, with attention paid to Phillips’ taste and experience. (The supporting items include his diary from a family trip to Japan in 1910, when he was 24, and a note on the five Tokaido prints he once owned, but which did not pass to the museum’s collection.) Or it can be appreciated primarily for presenting all 55 of Hiroshige’s scenes of the Tokaido—the “Eastern Highway” that stretched from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto—a complete cycle on loan from a Japanese private collection.

Yet what seems most striking, more than a century after Japanese art was introduced to the West, is how much the show disproves its underlying assumptions. Ukiyo-e and modern Western painting, the evidence on display here suggests, actually have remarkably little in common. If the two met briefly somewhere on the Tokaido, they quickly bustled off in opposite directions. (That’s not quite true, of course, but only because Japanese printmaking became increasingly Westernized, in the process losing much of its original character.)

Created during a period in which a newly prosperous Japanese middle class was beginning to travel for pleasure, Hokusai and Hiroshige’s art emphasized landscape in a form that had previously been used mostly for portraits of courtesans and Kabuki actors. Made in large editions and sold relatively cheaply, these prints depict both the remarkable and the everyday, with the latter often in the foreground. Cartoonish peasants, merchants, and boatmen go about their lives while mountains and waterfalls—sometimes invented, or at least exaggerated, by the artist—provide grand backdrops. The compositions are in the tradition of Japanese formal gardens, which are often oriented to provide a view of “borrowed scenery,” a landmark outside the garden’s perimeter.

Following Hokusai, Hiroshige adopted dramatic vantage points and playful framing devices. These became even more antic in his later work—he died in 1858, 25 years after completing the Tokaido series—but are already evident in these wood-blocks. Notable examples include Fujisawa—Temple, with a Shinto shrine’s gate looming in the foreground; Nissaka—Sayo Mountain Pass, in which a road swoops into the frame; and Yoshida—Toyokawa Bridge, whose airborne viewpoint puts the eye at the same altitude as a workman on scaffolding atop a castle roof. There’s really only one word that might describe these extraordinary, sometimes impossible vistas: “cinematic.”

Ukiyo-e’s framing devices were a revelation to Western artists, who had only recently escaped the studio and still frequently painted from the head-on perspective of the painter standing at his easel. The Japanese influence can be seen here in such canvases as Pierre Bonnard’s Movement of the Street (circa 1907), which places a woman off-center in the foreground, and both Maurice Prendergast’s Ponte della Paglia (1922) and Ernest Lawson’s Spring Night, Harlem River (1913), which survey one of Hiroshige’s favorite subjects, bridges, from positions hovering above the street. But these canvases look timid next to Hiroshige’s prints, which are consistently bolder and more dynamic.

That, at least in part, reflects the difference in media. All but a few of the show’s Western works are paintings, which offer greater depth and luminosity than ukiyo-e. European oils were brighter and thicker than Japanese inks, and thus the Impressionists and their successors could depict light, water, and reflections more vividly and fluidly. Hiroshige’s primary ingredient was line, although he employed color cunningly, notably when using gray or blue shapes to represent objects partially obscured by haze, as in Mishima—Morning Mist. This tactic impressed Western artists, but they didn’t directly copy it. They didn’t need to, given oils’ greater flexibility. But their renditions of similar subjects resulted in a lot of paintings whose pastel shades and pliant textures were once revolutionary but now look sappy.

The distinction is not, however, simply a matter of technique. Nineteenth-century European and American painters pictured nature as pretty, gentle, and ennobling, a balm for the wounds of civilization. The gardens of Britain and France were refuges from the Industrial Age, little Edens in the artist’s back yard, neighborhood park, or country estate. Even views of the imposing American West—few of which are included here, of course—presented the Rockies and the Sierras as paradises, robust but unmenacing.

Hiroshige’s landscapes, which seldom depict nature purely for its own sake, are less upbeat. Although he traveled the Tokaido during warm weather, the artist made a point of showing several locations in heavy snow. His moons, much admired by Western fans, have an ominous aspect. Traveling the Tokaido’s steep ascents and gloomy passes appears arduous—and potentially treacherous. There are bandits along the way, and ghosts, and mischievous spirits. The road itself is tense, often slashing the composition or zigzagging across it. Some of the prints evoke Japanese folk stories, and they’re not happy ones: Oiso—Tora’s Rain draws on the tale of a courtesan whose tears turned to rain after her lover’s death. Nissaka—Sayo Mountain Pass foregrounds a rock that supposedly contains the soul of a pregnant woman who was murdered there. These are not Bonnard’s sunny gardens or peaceful country lanes.

Sometime after the Impressionists, color and flatness alone become a modernist aesthetic—or a fetish, if you prefer. Abstract expressionism and color-field painting had their Asian aspects, but they took Hiroshige’s innovations far beyond what he would—or could—have done. There’s only one pure abstraction in this show, Kenzo Okada’s Footsteps (1954), which seems to have been included only because the artist was Japanese-American. Still, the work of such painters as American proto-abstractionist Augustus Vincent Tack—one of Phillips’ less impressive discoveries—pushes toward a future in which representation disappears. That’s not where Hiroshige was headed.

Although his art looked austere at a time when Western painters were growing more interested in pruning their styles, Hiroshige was no minimalist. Even at their most streamlined, his prints are packed with information, drama, and play. Kanagawa—Hilltop View, for example, deftly divides the composition into slices of water, town, and hill, showing Japan in sequential microcosm. Color, line, and content are all equal.

Compared with Hiroshige’s clear-eyed stylizations, the show’s European and American pieces look vaguely psychedelic, the beginning of a quest for ways of seeing that aren’t grounded in reality. That became the dominant mode of Western painting, and Hiroshige’s legacy now survives in contemporary-art galleries mostly in the output of parodists such as Masami Teraoka and D.C.’s own Iona Rozeal Brown. Yet the printmaker’s distinctive qualities are all around us, intentionally or not, in movies, comic books, and graphic design, as is only fitting. Hiroshige, after all, was a pop artist, not one of the genteel salon painters with whom he’s currently cohabiting so awkwardly at the Phillips.CP