Based on the exhibitions featured at the museum during the 2015-2016 academic year and works from the permanent collection, students submitted written work responding to individual pieces of art experienced first-hand at JCSM. Entry was open to graduate and undergraduate students. Prizes of $500 were awarded for two academic essays and two creative submissions. For information on the writing competition for the 2016-2017 academic year, contact Scott Bishop at 334-844-7014.
Untitled Essay by Michelle Mandarino
A recent exhibition at the Jule Collins Smith Museum features fifty-five prints from Utagawa Hiroshige’s color woodblock print series, “Along the Eastern Road, Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.” These prints, created between 1797 and 1858 during what is known as the Edo period in Japan, depict the “Tokaido,” or “Eastern Road Route,” which linked what is now Tokyo with the ancient capital of Japan. Hiroshige worked in the tradition of the “ukiyo-e,” or “pictures of the floating world” which depicted popular scenes of women, actors, and everyday people. Ukiyo, meaning floating world, was initially a pejorative term for the self-indulging lifestyle the newly wealthy merchant class could afford. For some time, the ideal citizen had been considered to be the farmer, who made product, while the merchant was in the lower class, and did not produce anything. This new resurgence of wealth brought about a cultural shift that is then reflected in the “ukiyo-e” prints.
The “ukiyo-e” prints by Hiroshige were not produced solely by Hiroshige. Hiroshige acted as the designer, and would design a sketch of how the print was to look, based on the proposed subject matter by the publisher, who would commission and distribute the final prints. Then, Hiroshige’s designs would be carved into woodblocks, one for each color desired on the print. These blocks would then be used by printers who would make impressions of the designs on paper, producing the final print.
The very deliberate choices made in this exhibition are used to both highlight the physical nature of the Tokaido and the historical context in which this style prevailed. The exhibit is organized in a very large gallery space with a small entrance space that displays various infographics, allowing the viewer to better understand the context before even stepping in the main space. The first infographic, titled “Along the Eastern Road” provides necessary historical and cultural background, describing both the complexity and cultural significance of the works. Accompanying this introduction is a second infographic, titled “Map of the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road”. This map provides a detailed explanation and a visual representation of the locations of the fifty-three stations along the Tokaido Road, allowing the viewer to better understand the path of the prints before he or she even begins to view the works.
This gallery space also represents a developing convention in the arrangement of gallery spaces. Instead of having a vastly empty floor space, there are two clusters of furniture place diagonally from each other. They consist of three to four chairs, a rug, and a low table in the center of each clusters. These elements are in similarly neutral tones, but in a darker palette so as to not blend in with the rest of the gallery space. This encourages visitors to take their time within the gallery, to sit down and reflect on the space as a whole, and to read through the relevant books that have been placed on the tables.
The main space of the gallery is large and consists of a conventional four-wall space, with no temporary walls to disrupt the flow of the space. The wall color is a very neutral off-white, which is appropriate as it does not overwhelm the delicate coloring of the prints, as a darker or brighter color might. The lighting is intentionally muted in this gallery. As with all ink prints of paper, the Tokaido prints are very delicate and prone to fading. The age and inks used in these prints make them especially so. As such, the skylight that is normally present in this gallery has been closed off to allow for the regulation of lighting inside. The gallery lights have been adjusted to not shine directly onto the prints, but slightly above them. Additionally, the lights shine at an intensity of approximately five to seven foot-candles. To put this in perspective, ten foot-candles is generally the highest intensity recommended for delicate works, such as prints, drawings, and watercolors. The neutral tones of the space and the dim lighting allow a viewer to fully appreciate the delicate colorings and details of the prints, while at the same time being a space that a viewer does not feel overwhelmed with spending a significant amount of time in, which is necessary for an exhibition with this many works.
The prints, additionally, are hung following the progression of the stations on the Tokaido Road from Edo to Kyoto. This, accompanied with the map presented at the entrance of the gallery space, allows the viewer to better understand the progression of the route as someone who had traveled it would see the stations in that same order. Furthermore, some of the prints are intentionally hung in vertical pairs, seemingly disrupting the flow of side-by-side prints. However, this forces the viewer to stop and take in the prints that were being called attention to. In all, the prints were fairly close together. In general, they were not grouped but in the occasional pairs that were spread throughout to both call attention to individual prints and break up the monotony that otherwise would have occurred had all the prints been side-by-side instead.
Overall, the works have an interesting relationship. On one hand, they are each individual works of art that are able to stand separately of each other. However, on the other hand, the works all comprise one larger body of work: Hiroshige’s Tokaido prints. In this perspective, each individual print is simply an extension of the larger work.
One particular space I found of interest was towards the end of the progression of the prints. Here, four prints are placed in a square formation, with two sets of two vertically stacked prints side-by-side. This is the only time that this occurs in the entire gallery space, and indeed, the presence of vertically stacked prints occurs only occasionally in this space, making it all the more noticeable. The prints in this two-by-two layout are “46th Station: Kameyama,” “47th Station: Seki,” “48thStation: Sakashita” and “49th Station: Tsuchiyama.” These scenes depict a snow-covered mountain, a small market, a Cliffside, and a rainy forest-side path. While thematically, these prints are no more related to each other than any other prints in the collection, these prints all have similar implicit diagonal lines that are emphasized by this grouping. Not only does this draw attention to those four individual prints and their relationships to each other, but it also calls attention to the two previous prints and the prints following it. This is especially emphasized by the fact that there is a doorway two prints before the quartet, and a wall corner two prints after quartet. Because of this layout, this complete wall is particularly emphasized.
In all, I believe the organization of the gallery to be very intuitive. The literal arrangement of the prints following the Tokaido Road stations make it very accessible to the viewers. Had there been more space in the gallery, I would have possibly spread out the prints or clustered them in groups, so that viewers could periodically stop and reflect upon the prints instead of having to walk the perimeter of the gallery, paying attention to the entire time to the closely-arranged prints. I believe the absence of temporary walls in the space to be a positive aspect, as they would have interrupted the flow of the room. I believe that among the gallery’s strengths are the clustered seating arrangement and the introduction at the beginning of the gallery space. The clustered seating arrangement demonstrates a progression towards a discussion-oriented space rather than a perception-oriented space. The infographics also foster the space as a cohesive learning experience for those without the prior knowledge of Japanese woodblock prints to also enjoy the exhibition.