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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fudō Falls in Oji - A Hiroshige Ukiyo-e

The image above is an ukiyo-e... a woodblock print created by master ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige Ando (surname first) of Oji Fudō no taki (Fudō Falls in Oji), created in September of 1857. One of my readers suggests it can also be read as 'Fudoh'... which is correct, but adding an 'h' does not look right at the end of a word - at least in this case..

When I was in Japan, I purchased a few ukiyo-e - but never could afford any of the ones by masters like Hiroshige or Hokusai - though I do have a print by Hokusai showing various forms of bridges, taken from some technical manual... so not an ukiyo-e in the classical sense, anyways.

It wouldn't have mattered... the beautiful nature scene in the above picture would not have captured my attention back when I was purchasing in the early 1990s mostly because any scene I saw I needed to have a reference point for.

Basically, unlike the Japanese for whom these drawings were originally created, I needed to know what it was and where it was...

Okay, the Japanese of the 1850s certainly knew, but did not in fact know if these drawings were truly representative.

The pieces I saw never had description about them - well, they did - but only in Japanese, and on the drawing themselves. Dumb gaijin (foreigner).

Even still... many Japanese of today, had/have great difficulty in reading the script on some of these old works, simply from lack of exposure to such script styles....

So... aside from two nature pieces - one of a pagoda in Nikko done in the 1940s and one from 1855 showing one of 53 stages of the Tokaido highway, every ukiyo-e I purchased was of a woman (because those I recognized), and of everyday scenes of life.

Hey! Waitaminute! The Tokaido Highway ukiyo-e I have! That's by Hiroshige! I do have quality!

Scenes of life, however, are key. If I had seen the above ukiyo-e with its gorgeous nature and people scene and could have afforded it, I would have purchased it on the spot.

Twenty-five years later (almost), I have a much broader view on Japanese art and thanks to the Internet and books, I can find out greater details on things. 

Let's look at the waterfall scene in some greater detail.

You will notice, that there is a hemp rope with tassels (collectively known as shimenawa) hanging high across the waterfall.

This rope, while part of a decoration, also has a religious meaning, implying that the site is sacred.

In Japan, a waterfall is revered, containing not only medicinal properties, but also religious and mystical aspects as well.

The Fudō Taki (Fudō Falls) is in the north part of Tokyo and is named after Fudō-myōō (不動明王), and is considered one of the important deities of Japanese Buddhism.

Fudō-myōō as written in Kanji, implies that he is the 'immovable king of wisdom".

One legend holds that a naked young girl once prayed under a waterfall for her sick father to be healed, and guess what, her wish was granted. As such, bathing in waters of Fud
ō Taki is supposed to provide healing.

In the ukiyo-e, you can see Japanese people looking to partake of the restorative powers of the waterfall.

There's the old man just about to enter the waters.

There's a wet man sitting on low table reaching for a cup of hot o-cha (green tea) being served by an old woman - perhaps a vendor, perhaps his wife.

There are even a pair of kimono-clad women either there for the sights or there to undress and bathe under the waterfall. It almost makes me wish Hiroshige drew this about 20 minutes later.

Hiroshige is the master of the gradient color... the bokashi technique... with the way the blues in the waterfall change and the greens in the surrounding forest imply depth of field while working with shadow and light.

For me, a simple guy with little knowledge on art except that I like what I like, I didn't even notice the forest surroundings until much later. It's just background.

And if that sounds harsh, just recall that Hiroshige wanted the viewer to see the waterfall and how it was being utilized.

How the waterfall is presented - within the forest - and with the shimenawa hemp rope - well... that's not as important as the water or the people who use it.

In fact, if you glance at the ukiyo-e from the top, because you know it is a waterfall, your eyes quickly cascade down the area of the water to the base, where you then spy the people. Everything else is secondary.

But when you do, he adds touches that make you stare in wonder and look around for more surprises... which for me was the small plants at the far left of the pooling water - a couple of weeds. Why add them? Because it's part of nature.

That's why Hiroshige is, in my mind, a master artist.
Andrew Joseph

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