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Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 8.20.2009

 

Contrasting Views

UO museum shows two artists’ views of a famous subject

by Brett Campbell

Remakes seldom live up to the originals, whether in movies or cover tunes or cars. But an exhibit at the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art shows that when two great artists — the 19th century woodblock printmaker Ando Hiroshige and the 20th century printmaker Junichiro Sekino — take on the same subject, their contrasting visions can yield striking insights about the shared subject, the artists and the times and places they lived in.

Ando– Hiroshige’s Shono: White-rain Downpour

Along with his older contemporary Hokusai, Hiroshige is the most celebrated of the classic Japanese woodblock print (ukiyo-e) artists. His breakthrough 1833-4 masterpiece, Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, comprises 55 prints depicting the artist’s 320 mile journey on the famous Tokaido Road from the vibrant urbanity of Edo (now Tokyo) to the imperial capital of Kyoto. The most important route of old Japan was punctuated by 53 way stations — cafes, inns, government offices — for weary travelers, and Hiroshige delighted in sketching the bustling activity there. 

 The series, whose subjects were sometimes based on stories as well the artist’s observations, made Hiroshige’s reputation, and influenced Westerners from Van Gogh to Frank Lloyd Wright. Hiroshige died in 1858, just before American warships forced Japan to open itself to Western trade, eventually leading to the industrialized society that Sekino would depict more than a century later. 

Now, a half century after Sekino commenced his journey retracing the old master’s steps, the museum is pairing each of his visions with its 19th-century predecessor. The exhibit also includes Hiroshige’s travel diary, which contains some of his preliminary sketches, and an installation of Sekino’s printmaking tools and materials. 

By the time he embarked on his Tokaido survey, Sekino was regarded as one of the great 20th century printmakers, acclaimed for his portrayals of subjects ranging from kabuki theater to sumo wrestling, geishas and children. Naturally, he brought a 20th century style, influenced by Western modernists such as Picasso. But the differences in mood and subject matter between his view of the Tokaido and his predecessor’s are even greater. In contrast to his own earlier work and Hiroshige’s character-filled scenes, Sekino here focuses less on people (who appear, if at all, as small, shadowy figures dwarfed by their surroundings) and more on the patterns of nature, the built environment and industrial and agricultural development. The contrast is clear immediately: In the series’ first print of the embarkation at Edo, Hiroshige shows travelers crossing a delicate wooden bridge framed by trees and rolling hills. Sekino gives us a looming highway overpass. 

 In several glorious prints — a forest,  cherry blossoms, a mountain lake, a lotus pond  — Sekino shows that he’s brilliantly capable of conveying natural beauty. But even some of his loveliest nature images place a mountain or the moon in human-built frames: a hotel window or reflected in a pool of water on a rooftop. In contrast to Hiroshige’s lively, sometimes comic takes, usually featuring bright blue bays or rivers, Sekino’s colors — frequently industrial greys and browns —  contribute to a frequently somber spirit, occasionally relieved by a single splash of brightness — a yellow umbrella or blue tree. 

In their respective views of Shono station, Hiroshige shows a group of scurrying trekkers fleeing a bamboo-bending storm; Sekino presents isolation: the shadow of a lone, seated traveler, viewed through a tavern window, imbibing alone. Still, Sekino, who taught at OSU in 1963 and died in 1988, could find beauty even in human impositions on nature; in a night view of an oily, polluted bay, reflected, shimmering city lights glow like rainbows.

For Hiroshige, the road to Tokkaido was a stage for the human comedy of an emerging urban culture. For Sekino, it’s a portrait of modern industrial humanity overshadowed by nature and by its own creations, yet nevertheless finding fleeting glimpses of beauty amid them. Each is a masterpiece of its time; juxtaposed, they reveal even more.

While you’re at the JSMA, be sure to check another fascinating modern Japanese printmaker’s take on a famous ancient subject: Hokusai’s views of Mt. Fuji, re-envisioned by Saitˆo Kiyoshi (1907-1997). “On The Road: Two Visions of the Tokaido” runs through September 13 at the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.