Just as America received accounts of the newly explored Far West through the great advertising tools of 19th-century photographic images, the Ukiyo-e prints I mentioned earlier attracted a thriving merchant-class to visit desirable destinations, in fact or in their imaginations. Hiroshige made an enchanting, visually loaded set of prints of the famous 53 stations along the Tokaido Road, a coastal highway connecting Edo to Kyoto, with a (usually witty) poem worked into the scene. One of these, Shono: Driving Rain shows off his skills in shifting gradually across the page from heavy-skinned darkness to rain-veils made of zippy lines shaved and shredded from tree tops. One picture spins a whirlpool’s energy in a way that cranks our gaze up from the bottom of the page toward the craggy, whippy spindrift peaking and curling up and around the paper.
Another majestic place, Mt. Fuji, so spiritually important in the lives of the Japanese, was famously documented by Hiroshige’s contemporary, Hokusai, whose two major books, the color prints of Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji and the black-and-white series Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, include people going about their daily routines overseen by the grand mountain. Fuji has strong associations with immortality, so these beautiful, robust pictures remind us that the human is small and passing, indeed, and that even our closest material realization of immortality is itself a part of the stuff of this world.
Dreams and Diversions has two venues, The San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park and the University of San Diego. It will be on view till June 5, with a complete rotation of prints — the first rotation of Hiroshige’s Kyoka Tokaido, for instance, contains prints of stations 1 through 26, the second rotation displays the remainder — February 26, 2011. ■
Dreams and Diversions, San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, 619-232-7931; University of San Diego, Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries, 5998 Alcalá Park, 619-260-4600. Through June 5.