from the series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road (Tôkaidô gojûsan tsugi no uchi), also known as the Gyôsho Tôkaidô
Print by Utagawa Hiroshige
We love visual stories. That’s why museums put those long descriptive placards next to the hoary portraits. Without a story, it’s just someone’s ancestor wearing a costume with all the interest of your neighbor breaking out the photo albums during a Super Bowl party. Realistically, some of the stories don’t help. Honestly, we don’t know these people and we’ve seen old Chevy’s before.
Just as Renaissance tapestries with all their built-in action garner far more interest than a portrait of a long-dead duke beside a globe, Hiroshige attracts the eye because of the inherent story behind the picture. Photography is frozen moments, generating the most excitement the finer the moment is cut between one action and the next. We can see what precipitated the moment and imagine what follows.
Ostensibly, Hiroshige made pictures of mountains and roads (among so many other things). He was a print-maker trying to make sales. If you asked me for a picture of a mountain, then it would be in the center of the page. With a little luck, I could persuade you that it was covered in snow. I might get away with one big line curving up and then down. All done. No action on anything less than a geological scale. (“Wait for it… wait for it…”) Realistically, I’m not sure how much better it would get if you asked for fifty drawings of a mountain. I would probably break out the big box of crayons.
that this is not about usage of raw materials. Hiroshige mastered that, but he was not alone. This is about composition, which is where inspiration passes through innate artistic sense to power the imagination. Surely, he possessed the technical skill to create what he envisioned- but that vision in the first place is the miracle.
I see this picture and I want to pull on a coat. I want to get inside and sit beside the fire with a hot drink and good companions. The action has involved me.
Film has reduced our exposure to the tales available in static images. We give up picture books at an early age. Even our comics (serial and in the newspaper) have simplified their images while requiring multiple panels to impart information. The ability to absorb a story in a single imprint is a gift that has driven our survival as a species. That’s how we know what is going on- a single facial expression or a sudden flight of a bird. We receive more and more information in our visual stimuli and understand less and less.
Our art may claim to reflect the speed of society, but reaction to the world is a responsibility sometimes better left to moments of contemplation.
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 129 more to go.
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