One famous art genre is the Japanese woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e, which literally means “pictures of the floating world.” It is an art genre that originated in the 1600s and became popular among the ordinary citizens of Japan because the relative ease of reproduction meant that these prints were affordable to the general populace. The subject matter of these Japanese woodblock prints was mainly scenes and people of the entertainment and pleasure quarters in Edo (now Tokyo), namely the theaters and brothels. Indeed, ukiyo-e was used as posters advertising the geisha women, courtesans and kabuki actors who work in those establishments.
In the late 1700s, ukiyo-e woodblock prints branched out to include landscape prints. Two contemporaries who were prominent in this period are Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige, though the latter was 37 years the former’s junior. Both of them were famous for their landscape prints, although both of them also painted more “traditional” themes of women and actors. At first glance, the works of these two masters may look very similar in style and subject matter, which includes scenes from Edo and Mt. Fuji. Unless one is familiar with their work, it can be hard to tell them apart and see the differences that become more apparent upon close inspection. Furthermore, works by both of these masters influenced a few big name European artists: Hokusai’s works influenced Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Hermann Obrist while Hiroshige clearly had an influence on Vincent Van Gogh and Ivan Bilibin. Both men also inspired and influenced a whole new art movement — Jugendstil in Germany and Mir Iskusstva in Russia, respectively.
The differences between these two artistic geniuses lie in their backgrounds, which probably had an effect on their styles and approaches to their art. Hokusai was from an obscure parentage while Hiroshige was born to a low-ranking samurai, a servant to the shogun and whose job was to protect Edo castle from a fire. Hokusai would then take on nearly 100 different names throughout his career and move from one place to another, thus causing people to perceive him as crazy or unstable. Hiroshige, on the other hand, inherited his father’s job as a bureaucrat at the age of 13, but turned to art a year later. Perhaps owing to this difference in their backgrounds, Hokusai appeared to be more dramatic in his prints, painting with sharp, forceful lines and a range of colors, which is a complex technique in woodblock printing, as they require a series of woodblocks. Hiroshige, however, emphasized more on the mood, atmosphere and ambience, which can make his paintings appear more subtle and passive. One other difference may be in their choice of subject matter. Hokusai is a Buddhist of the Nichiren sect with Mt. Fuji considered a sacred site and his beliefs and spirituality are reflected in one of his most famous work, titled “One hundred views of Mt. Fuji” with Mt. Fuji being the central theme. Hiroshige painted Mt. Fuji as well, but it is only as a part of a scene captured along the way during his travel from Edo to Kyoto along the Tokaido road, which led to the paintings of one of his most famous work, “Fifty-three stations of Tokaido”. In this sense, one can say that Hokusai’s approach to his work is spiritual while Hiroshige’s is realistic.
With this understanding of the different styles of these two Japanese woodblock artists, hopefully their work can be enjoyed and appreciated even more.