The below piece is entitled “Six Jewel Rivers from Various Provinces”, these woodblock prints of each of the six major rivers in Japan have a poem associated with it. The locales of the Six Jewel Rivers, from left to right below, are the Noda (in the Mutsu Province), Tezukuri (in the Musashi Province), Noji (in the Omi Province), Ide (in the Yamashiro Province), Fulling Cloth (in the Setsu Province), and Mount Koya (in the Kii Province).
These prints were painted by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) during the Edo period (1615-1868). Hiroshige is considered the last great master of the ukiyo-e art tradition (woodblock prints), which after his death, rapidly declined due to westernization that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Hiroshige was best known for his landscapes, and during the time he was alive (the Edo period), the six great rivers were a popular subject among ukiyo-e printmakers. To illustrate this, these prints were displayed right next to a set of handscrolls of the six rivers by Sakai Oho (1808-1841). Both these sets were on display in the “Celebrating the Arts of Japan: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection.”
There were a few reasons why this particular set of pieces spoke to me.
The first was that I was familiar with Hiroshige’s work, having seen some of it before.
The second was I always marvel at a very special craft such as ukiyo-e. It saddens me to see crafts die or lose popularity (much like watchmaking today like I wrote in my watch post).
And lastly, I’m very fond of nature and landscape paintings, as I find nature to be incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring. Rivers in particular are special to me, as they provide essential clean water to the inhabitants of this planet, and it saddens me greatly how many we humans have polluted or destroyed (many of China’s beautiful rivers for example).
The above piece is titled “PixCell-Deer#24”. It was created by Kohei Nawa (born 1975) in 2011. This piece was created by Nawa’s use of variably sized “PixCell” beads, a term he invented. Nawa has become famous for his use of “PixCell” and has created many works which you can find on his website. “PixCell” combines the idea of a pixel, the smallest unit of digital image, with that of a cell.
Whether intentionally or unintenionally, “PixCell-Deeer#24” resonantes with a type of religious painting known as a Kasuga Deer Mandala (below), which features a deer, the messenger animal of Shinto deities, posed similarly with its head turned to the side, and with a round sacred mirror on its back. In Japanese art, the deer is often depicted as a companion of ancient sages and has auspicious and poetic associations.
Why does this piece of art resonate with me?
Well for one, it’s absolutely visually stunning; it immediately catches your eye at how unique it is. Like with Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e art, Nawa’s “PixCell” art is a special craft, hence my fondness. I had never before seen something like this.
I was also very intrigued by how Nawa paid homage to older, religious Japanese art (the Kasuga Deer Mandala, which you can see an example below). I find it amazing that artists can take something that has been done before and reinvent it in a new way.
The above piece is called “The Ameya.” It was painted by American artist Robert Blum (1857-1903) in 1893. Blum was one of the youngest members of the National Academy of Dessign, was President of the Painters in Pastel, a member of the Soceity of American Artists, and the American Watercolor Society.
In 1890, Blum went to Japan to illustrate a series of articles for Scribner’s Magazine. He spent eighteen months working there and illustrated a three-part article on his experiences, one of which was an image he based “The Ameya” on. An ameya is a candy blower, and Blum wrote: “Very interesting things they do certainly perform…using the candy like a glassblower his lump of molten glass, and producing results, if hardly as beautiful or durable, certainly as artistic and finished as regards workmanship.”
What interested me about this painting was a little different. While the medium is very standard (oil on canvas), it is the subject matter that is interesting. Blum wrote it best: these ameya, or candy blowers, are themselves artists. The art of making candy in this way is fascinating. Living in New York, these ameya, who you could have found in the streets of Japanese towns back in the day, could be likened to modern day street performers.
I admire street performers because they share their craft (dancing, singing, playing instruments, juggling, etc.) with the people around them. As I have stated numerous times, people who are skilled in a particular craft hold a special place in my heart. People should be admired for perfecting a craft, whatever it may be.