A Double Take on Picturing Place in Japan

For more than a millennium, Japanese painters, printmakers, and, more recently, photographers have produced images of outdoor scenes—large or small, colorful or monochromatic, intimate or expansive, actual locations or imagined. Three galleries in the Art Museum are currently filled with this prodigious output in the exhibition Picturing Place in Japan. Each gallery treats a different theme: Imagined Places, Famous Places, and Sacred Places, with a final coda of photographs commemorating the triple-disaster earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown of March 2011 in northeast Japan. Each object earned its way into the exhibition because of its compelling relevance to one (or more) of these themes. Two stand out as a pair of opposites that encapsulate some of the ideas and pictorial effects that Japanese artists have expressed through the rendering of place: Tani Bunchō’s Mountains and Water and Utagawa Hiroshige’s Moon Pine at Ueno.

Tani Bunchō 谷文晁 (Japanese, 1763–1841), Edo period, 1615–1868, Mountains and Water, 1828. Two six-fold screens; ink and gold leaf on paper, 174 × 352.2 cm (each). Gitter-Yelen CollectionThe difference between them in format and scale immediately sets up the contrast. Bunchō’s pair of six-fold screens commands attention. The largest work in the exhibition, it spans about twenty feet, and the folds create a physical dimensionality that gives the painting tangible depth and sculptural presence. What a viewer sees changes according to viewing position: moving in close to see details hides other parts of the painting behind the folds; moving back allows one to take in the whole image and envelops the viewer in its deep and wide waterscape. In contrast, Hiroshige’s image fills only a single sheet of paper, its small size inviting close-up inspection. Within the vertical confines of the rectangular page, the artist encourages even closer looking with an extraordinary circular tree branch that emphatically frames a cluster of buildings in the distance.

Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川広重 (Japanese, 1797–1858), Edo period, 1615–1868, Moon Pine at Ueno, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo, 1857. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Laura P. Hall Memorial Fund, selected for acquisition by students in ART 425: The Japanese PrintTheir means of manufacture vary, too, each celebrating a different kind of picture making. To delineate the rocks, trees, and mountains that bound a great body of water—mostly the gold-leafed ground left in reserve—Bunchō wielded a flexible brush loaded with liquid black ink. This approach records every twist and turn of the brush in Bunchō’s hand, his energy revealed in the taut, controlled fluidity of the ink lines. Conversely, Hiroshige never touched the printed paper that bears his name. He designed the image in the form a drawing, which was then translated into print by expert craftsmen—woodblock carvers and printers—to produce the multiple copies of the final picture we enjoy today. This technique emphasizes crisply defined, hard-edge forms and a panoply of colors, which render Hiroshige’s dramatic design with clarity and a visual power that belies the print’s small size.

One of the chief themes of the exhibition, the contrast of pictures of real places with those that existed only in the imagination, is also exemplified by these two works—though which is which may defy initial expectations. Nothing in Bunchō’s view of a mountainous watery location, with people leisurely boating, seems beyond the realm of the possible. Could this not be a tranquil place that Bunchō visited and captured with his brush and ink? In fact, the painting is an invention of Bunchō’s creative mind and knowledge of earlier art. For its period audience, it evoked not Japan but China (to which Bunchō never traveled), and his audience appreciated it for its persuasive creation of an idealized remote retreat. Hiroshige’s picture, on the other hand, seems implausible. What tree has a circular branch like the one portrayed in this print? And yet, this was a real tree in a real place, the so-called “Moon Pine” in the district of Ueno in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The preciseness of place and name of the renowned tree is recorded and emphasized in the printed words in the cartouches at the upper right. The tree blew down in a typhoon in the late nineteenth century but has been recreated recently (if imperfectly) at the same location.

One similarity between the two works is that each made its way to the exhibition by virtue of the scholarly attentions of Princeton students. Bunchō’s screens are owned by Dr. Kurt A. Gitter and Alice Yelen Gitter, who generously loaned them and many of the other works on view. In fact, this generosity long preceded the plans for the exhibition. Twice in the past five years, the Gitters hosted my graduate students, the museum’s curators of Asian art, and me at their Art Study Center in New Orleans, allowing us to view any work in their holdings. Before heading south, each graduate student studied the Gitter-Yelen Collection online and put together a request list of paintings to study in person. Bunchō’s pair of screens was a top choice for many, and its spectacular presence in real life made an enormous impression on us all. When we began to think about this exhibition, the screens were a clear choice as a centerpiece.

Hiroshige’s Moon Pine at Ueno entered the Art Museum’s collections just this past spring, recommended by the undergraduate students in the seminar “The Japanese Print” (ART 425). After two months studying the development of Edo-period (1615–1868) prints, including weekly sessions in the Art Museum to examine originals, the seminar traveled to a gallery in New York, and from a group of about thirty prints, they selected five as candidates for acquisition for the Art Museum. We brought the five back to Princeton, where we continued to study and discuss them. During our final seminar session, the students made their concluding arguments and, in the end, voted to acquire Hiroshige’s Moon Pine at Ueno. This print made an indelible mark on the students, and when they view it in Picturing Place in Japan, they will know from their own experience that behind every work of art in a museum, there are thoughtful people who wished to both preserve it and share it with others.


Andrew M. Watsky
Professor of Japanese Art and Archaeology and Director, P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art


Picturing Place in Japan is made possible by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; the John B. Elliott, Class of 1951, Fund for Asian Art; the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art, Princeton University; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Partners of the Princeton University Art Museum.