Pop Culture and Japan

A Tale Of Two Artists: Studying The Artistry Of Hokusai And Hiroshige

Ukiyo-e, aka Japanese woodblock prints, are among the most recognisable artforms in the world and there are several masters of the medium to be aware of. Perhaps none are more celebrated than Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, two men who redefined the genre with their breathtaking landscapes and vivid realism of nature.

Hokusai and Hiroshige are both responsible for shifting ukiyo-e from a style of personal portraits of courtesans and actors to the broader lens of landscapes and animals. 

While both artists covered similar motifs, their styles were wholly unique. In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the artistry of Hokusai and Hiroshige to see what set them apart.

Examining Hokusai 

Without a doubt, Hokusai was a creative genius. He produced a huge volume of paintings over his lifetime and some of his most famous series like Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji have stood the test of time and become even more valuable in the decades since his death in 1849.

One of Hokusai’s pioneering techniques was the use of Prussian blue pigment in his work. Known as aziome-e prints in Japanese, art that had Prussian blue in the colour scheme stood out for their monochromatic beauty. Although Hokusai wasn’t the only ukiyo-e artist who used Prussian blue, he did help to popularise it through masterpieces like The Lone Fisherman at Kajikazawa in the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series. 

Another trait of Hokusai’s art was the obsession for a single subject, most notably Mount Fuji. He depicted the full mountain in a lot of work and also used it for imaginative background detail. Examples include seeing the mountain through a window, it being reflected in water, acting as a shadow and so much more. 

It’s estimated Hokusai produced over 70,000 designs in his life and in terms of pure energy and innovation, there may be no greater ukiyo-e artist.

The artistic style of Hiroshige 

Hiroshige also earned a reputation for stunning landscape paintings, though he also produced a wide range of kabuki actor, women and warrior portraits in his early years. Some could argue that while Hiroshige couldn’t match the breadth of imagination Hokusai possessed, he did have unique traits that put him on his own pedestal.

Perhaps the most powerful trait was his ability to infuse a sense of poetry into his art. Whether it was a season, weather or time of day, Hiroshige brought touch, taste and smell into his landscapes. He also brought in distinctively Western elements for an added sense of realism and depth.

Another Hiroshige calling card is the unique borders around all of his prints, giving them a framed quality that magnified the scenes within. It’s also worth mentioning Hiroshige was focused on catering to his specific audience, rather than accurately depicting the scenes he captured during journeys like his time on the Tokaido Road.

Closing thoughts 

When examining the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige, it’s all a matter of personal taste. Both deserve to be classed in a list of the greatest artists who ever lived and they succeeded in showing Japan in a light that will be forever ingrained into popular culture.

What are some of your favourite Hokusai and Hiroshige paintings? Comment below! 

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