On a recent visit to AGNS last month, I spent most of my time in a small, dim gallery in the company of several other people, all of us enthralled with The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō. The exhibition features 19th-century prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, one of the undisputed masters of Japanese art. As one couple left the room, one turned to the other and said, “Quite extraordinary, aren’t they? Not at all what I expected to see here in Nova Scotia.” Indeed.

Utagawa Hiroshige lived from 1797 until 1858, the last great master in the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition, paintings and prints that depicted the day-to-day life of 18th– and 19th-century Japan.

In 1832 Hiroshige took the Tōkaidō road, accompanying a gift of horses from the Shogun to the Emperor. He then produced several editions of prints depicting the journey. The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, 55 woodblock prints (because the beginning and end of the Tōkaidō road were not considered “stations”), depicts the journey between Japan’s two great cities of the 19th century: Edo(now Tokyo), the base of the Shogun, the administrator who ruled Japan day-to-day, and Kyoto, the Imperial city, home of the Emperor, who was considered a deity. The 53 post stations were way-points where travellers could eat, rest, and find stables. This was Hiroshige’s best known and most popular work.

Ukiyo-prints were widely disseminated once Japan opened its doors to the West, and works by Hiroshige and his contemporaries such as Katushika Hokusai (of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa fame) were particularly influential on the Impressionists. Van Gogh and Monet, among others collected the prints, and when one visits Monet’s studio at Giverny today, examples of his collection fill the studio.

Hiroshige did not depict imperial pomp and splendour, but rather focussed on the middle-class travellers, and on the labourers, servers, and other working-class people encountered along the way.

Hiroshige’s eye for detail is unfailing, each print is replete with historical and character detail that repays careful looking at each print. One sees, for instance, people being carried across shallow rivers sitting on what appear to be ladders or being ferried across in litters piled high with their baggage. Incongruous details, at least to our eyes, abound. Why a character depicted in the print Numazu: Dusk, has a giant mask strapped to his back is beyond me, but it’s fascinating.

Often the stations themselves are not depicted at all, the artist choosing instead to show the view, the landscape around the station, or the other travellers still making their way to the inn.

In Hara: Mount Fuji at Morn, for instance, the viewpoint is as if we have stopped at the post station and are looking back down the road towards Mount Fuji. A few travellers are still straggling in, and elegant red-crowned cranes stand in a rice paddy.

Hiroshige’s mastery of the wood-block technique, where different blocks are used for each colour in the print, is apparent through-out, but perhaps nowhere more than in Mishima: Morning Mist where the subtly coloured figures recede into the mist surrounding a shrine that the travellers are passing.

This body of work is all the more unexpected because it represents a complete set, put together in 1834 and remaining together ever since. Hiroshige made several editions of this body of work, and this set represents the second edition of the first print-run from 1834–35.

A gift from Neill Phillips, a Montreal lawyer in 1976, this work was one of the first gifts to the newly opened Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō is one of the masterpieces of the AGNS collection, and, quite frankly, of any Canadian public art collection. It is well-worth repeat visits, each one of which will provide new surprises and discoveries. My only complaint is that the exhibition is in a small side gallery. A function of the limitations of AGNS’s current building, but this incredible work would only benefit from more room to breathe.

The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō continues through March 17, 2019 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on Hollis Street.

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