Along with bijin-ga (‘pictures of beautiful women’) the Albert Bender collection contains many excellent examples of prints based on the theme of landscape.
The work of the artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) is particularly well represented. Even though Hiroshige was active in producing work from 1818 onwards, it was only in 1830 that he changed his subject matter from that of the figurative to landscape with the appearance of the ‘Famous Places in the Eastern Capital’ series.
Notoriety for Hiroshige, however, came slightly later with the production of the ’53 Stations on the Tokaido’ in 1833-34, which are seen as some of the greatest works in Japanese ukiyo-e. Hiroshige was highly regarded primarily for the way in which he conveyed atmospheric details, such as changing seasons through the depiction of rain, snow or wind.
His last series of prints was ‘100 Famous Views of Edo’ (1856-58), and two excellent examples from this series are on show at the Albert Bender exhibition: ‘Fireworks at Ryogoku’ and ‘Grandpa’s Teahouse in Meguro’. In ‘Fireworks at Ryogoku’ the actual texture of the wood from the woodblock involved in its printing is visible in the dark-coloured night sky.
Ukiyo-e and Bijin-ga
Ukiyo-e (‘pictures of the floating world’) first appeared in seventeenth century Edo (present-day Tokyo) when a middle-class culture emerged amidst the expansion of the new Japanese capital. These woodblock prints were pictures produced by craftsmen from woodcuts whose designs were originally painted by artists.
The majority of ukiyo-e refer to themes associated with the leisure activities of Edo’s bourgeoisie; namely everyday scenes, landscapes and actors in kabuki (theatre) roles, as well as geishas and women generally, known as bijin-ga (‘pictures of beautiful women’).
Women in Japanese Prints
Some of the most noted prints on exhibition are by artists renowned for their characterisation of women in print form from the late-eighteenth up to the mid-nineteenth century – Eisen, Eizan, Kunisada, Shigenobu, Shuncho, Shunsen and Utamaro.
Kikukawa Eizan (1787-1867) along with Toyokuni (1769-1825) were renowned for being the most important artists of bijin-ga at a time when they were actually in decline as an art form.
‘The Four Elegant Pastimes: The Koto’ of c. 1804-18 is a noteworthy example of Eizan’s work. So too is Utagawa Kunisada’s (1786-1864) ‘Gatherer of Herbs’ a high quality print.
Kunisada became a pupil of Toyokuni when he was fifteen years old. Not only was he highly regarded for his actor and courtesan portraits, but also in his bijin-ga the distinct colouration that was to become his hallmark is evident.
Some of the prints by Utagawa Toyokuni on show in the Albert Bender exhibition illustrate actors on stage, such as ‘Iwai Tojaku’. It is generally accepted that this theme provided Toyokuni with an opportunity to develop his finest draughtsmanship.