Sunday, April 26, 2009

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō

28. Utagawa Kuniyoshi: The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō, by Sarah E. Thompson

Many years ago, I was browsing through a rack at what has become my best source for inexpensive kimono, haori and obi. Of course, the linings are often the best part, and on looking at the lining of one man's haori, I found this:


I did not know at the time what it was, only that it was beautiful and unusual. But a few years later, at an exhibition of Japanese art, I discovered that it was a rendering of one of Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō - specifically, Yokkaichi from the Hoeido edition:

Thus began my fascination with Japanese woodblock prints (aided and abetted, I might add, by being in close proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago's Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints).

Sarah Thompson's book, describing the prints of Kuniyoshi's Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, is quite simply one of the finest books on the subject that I have come across, for a number of reasons.

Of course, the quality of reproduction is of prime importance in any book about art, and the reproductions in this book are excellent. The lines are sharp, and this is critical, because each print has a series title bordered with images related to the print, and each has an inset landscape the design of which also relates to the images. Any blurring of the lines would detract from the reader-viewer's ability to see and appreciate those relationships. The colors, too, are well-reproduced, of particular benefit in prints such as No. 38 (Fukushima) and No. 43 (Tsumagome), which contain images of dreams or ghosts.

Like the Tōkaidō, the Kisokaidō linked Kyoto, the ancient capital, with Edo (now Tokyo), but by an inland, rather than a coastal, route. All these official routes had designated posts which were required to provide facilities to travelers. There were sixty-nine of the Kisokaidō, so the woodblock series consists of seventy-one images (one of each station, and one for each of the cities that was an endpoint).

Kuniyoshi's prints, however, are more than mere landscape images of the stations. In fact, as noted above, those landscapes are presented as an inset in the larger print. The main content of each is drawn from Japanese history and folklore, with the connection to the particular station being made sometimes straightforwardly, as where the action of the story depicted occurred in or near the area, and sometimes through punning on the place names and names of people and places in the stories. Thompson explicates the connection in short, but information-packed, essays on the facing pages. The reader will learn as much about the history and folklore of Japan as she will about the prints themselves, and the scholar will appreciate Thompson's identification of each print, not only by title, but by publisher, date and censors' seals.

I must comment, too, on the construction and design of the book. It's a dust-jacketed hardback, and very sturdily put together, with the sections sewn (I see too many hardbacks these days that are merely glued, and fall apart too quickly!) and endsheets firmly attached. As mentioned, the colors are beautiful, but I want to note also the design of the small panel with the print number that accompanies Ms. Thompson's essays; it's a small, but telling, indication of the attention to detail that makes this book so valuable. And there's a good index and a good bibliography, too!

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

(Note: I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Pomegranate Communications was kind enough to send me their catalogue along with it, and I spent an inordinate amount of time drooling over their offerings. They have quite a varied selection of art and architecture books, and if the quality of this book is any indication, one should look for the Pomegranate name on any such book.)

1 comment:

  1. I know nothing about this subject, but the book sounds fascinating! I wonder if it would ever be in a public library.