Andō Hiroshige prints transport viewers to 19th century Japan

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) presents an iconic series of  prints by Andō Hiroshige (1797-1858) from its collection. For the first time in over two decades, the Museum is pulling from storage these remarkable woodblock prints that illustrate scenes of everyday life unfolding at each relay station along the Tōkaidō, the famous Eastern Sea Road that connected Edo (now Tokyo), to the former imperial capital, Kyoto. 

Dreamscapes by Andō Hiroshige presents all 55 prints of the very first edition of “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō,” a series that has been in the MMFA’s collection since 1973 and that was published in 1833-1834 by Hoeidō and Senkakudō publishing houses. The exhibition looks at the talent of Hiroshige and his publishing team in creating an idyllic world everybody wanted to inhabit. It also examines the factors that  led to the astronomical commercial success of these prints, which popularized the landscape print and fueled the emergence of Japonisme in Europe. 

An invitation to travel to 19th-century Japan 

An unconventional artist from the samurai class, Hiroshige was not the first to be interested in the Tōkaidō.  However, the success of his first series on the subject far eclipsed that of all those that came before it. In fact, some of his illustrations were reprinted more than 15,000 times. These beautifully depicted scenes fostered the perception that the Tōkaidō was more than a mere road along the country’s eastern sea coast –  it was a destination in and of itself. 

At the time it was created, this series sparked a desire in the masses to take the nearly 500-kilometre journey on foot from the Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo to the Sanjōhashi Bridge, in Kyoto. The 53 relay stations depicted promised travelers everything from lodging to specialty foods, sexual services and products of all  sorts, including straw sandals.

Being an imaginary work, the “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō” transcended the straightforward observational representation of places and offered instead a fantasy vision of Japan. Hiroshige’s Tōkaidō  treated the landscape and its atmospheric effects – wind, snow, rain – as subjects in their own right, an approach that was completely novel at the time. 

The artist also cited highly popular travel books and incorporated elements that came from Europe (Western perspective, horizontal picture format, shading and synthetic blue pigment) to create exotic dreamscapes with wide appeal. Seeing a commercial opportunity in the fast-growing the consumer and travel culture, he worked closely with his publishing team to turn the print into a powerful publicity tool  that would ensure widespread visibility for cosmetic products, eating establishments and teahouses, as well as promote regional culinary specialties. 

“The seductive charm with which Hiroshige imbued his compositions earned him the reputation as a master of Japanese landscape prints,” Laura Vigo, Curator of Asian Art at the MMFA, said. “In his captivating illustrations, he cleverly blended the real and the imaginary,  to almost cinematic effect, becoming the maker of a world everybody yearned to inhabit and travel within – a world that still charms us to this day.”

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