The Japan Times, March 4, 2000

'100 Famous Views of Edo' offers glimpse of 1850s Tokyo


NEW YORK (AP) Rolling black clouds turn to heavy sheets of rain, forcing pedes-trians to huddle as they cross a bridge over shimmering blue water. Along a bridal path, horse dung glistens gold in autumn light as men and women in bright kimonos bus-tle in the background. A bril-liant red temple lantern sets off pure white snow.

In 100 colorful woodblock prints so vivid you can almost smell and hear the daily scenes they describe, Utaga-wa Hiroshige captured Tokyo between 1856 and his death in 1858. In what was then one of the world's biggest cities, it was a pivotal time.

On Feb. 15, what is viewed as the finest of the world's six known complete sets of Hiro-shige's "One Hundred Fa-mous Views of Edo" — the name of Tokyo until 1868 — went on display at the Brook-lyn Museum of Art.

Hiroshige was one of the most famous masters of what the Japanese call ukiyo-e, de-pictions of life in the Edo Pe-riod.

Born Ando Hiroshige, the artist worked as a fire fighter until, at 31, he began studying printmaking under the fa-mous Utagawa Toyohiro. He developed an amazing ability to capture the atmospheric ef-fects of season and place, and later took on the name of his mentor, Utagawa.

The prints on display repre-sent Hiroshige's most ambi-tious work. Because they are so fragile, it is only the second time the entire set has been displayed — the first was in 1987. The new show has limit-ed hours, from noon to 5 p.m., and will remain only through April 23.

"This represents Japan just after Commodore Perry land-ed there. It's the end of an era . . . . You see a few West-ern things, clocks and panta-loons, but it's quite different," said Amy G. Poster, curator of the show and head of the museum's Department of Asian Art.

"This deluxe set of the se-ries is amazing not just in terms of its state of preserva-tion, which is fantastic, but in terms of printing techniques. The printing is so perfect. The publisher really pulled out all the stops," said Poster.

The colors — natural pig-ment printed using four or more of the most advanced printing techniques of the time on thick mulberry bark paper — are stunningly bright.

This first-edition set also features mica mixed with the pigment in almost every print in the series to give shaded surfaces a reflective quality and add a subtle glittering ef-fect with changes in the light.

Another unusual feature is the extensive and refined use of the technique of gradation, or bokashi, by which color is carefully wiped off a block be-fore printing to give lush tex-ture and shading to water, sky and other areas.

And, unlike some sets made later, the small title cartouch-es in the top right corner of each print are multicolored with a brocade effect. More common sets have only flat monochrome cartouches.

Although the set was donat-ed to the museum in 1930, the works were never recorded with other Japanese prints and were not listed in the li-brary catalog, Poster said.

But soon after Poster start-ed at the museum she began going through back book-shelves looking for Japanese prints, and in 1970 happened upon an overlooked album containing the entire collec-tion.

"They were so good they were too good to be true. But nobody would take the time with all that embossing and the mica if they weren't real. And they are now the most fa-mous in the world. People are coming here from all over the world to see them," she said.

Now she is battling to keep them safe, carefully examin-ing the many requests to show the prints to ensure they would not be subjected to harmful conditions. A few were loaned to Washington's National Gallery of Art for last year's "Edo" show.

Luckily for those who want more than a brief glimpse of the works and are interested in the stories behind the imag-es, the museum has published a new edition of "Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," its long out-of-print book on the series — this time in a $39.95 paperback as well as hardcover.