The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaido

This very beautiful edition of Japanese prints, arranged by Sebastian Izzard, a well-known Asian art dealer, and bound into an art book format by printer George Braziller, is a loving micro-record of one of Japan?s most significant art-making moments: the 19th-century tradition of ukioyo-e, or woodblock ?pictures of the floating world.? The prints were one artifact of 18th- and 19th-century Japan?s burgeoning cosmopolitanism, and of a moment when the countryside beyond Tokyo was newly accessible along internal trade routes. A nascent merchant class, hungry for books and material goods, used the woodblock press to capture (affordably) the bedazzlements of urban life and of travel. The Sixty Nine Stations of the Kisokaido is one painterly account of the voyage along Japan?s second-most-important road. During the 1830s and 40s, Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisei Eisen, two of the day?s leading printmakers, crafted scenes of each of the route?s 69 postal stations. In contemporary America, such a venture might result in a bizarre collection of photographs taken from rest stops along I-90. This book results in a 19th-century cross between a narrative scroll and a book of postcards. The artists, and the art form, revel in images of daily life: travelers ford streams or rest in thatched huts under mountains, postmen sleep in the heat of day, boaters row across lakes, and prostitutes and geisha fill the road at night. In fact, these are the kinds of views that inspired Van Gogh and the Impressionists to urge themselves into a more immediate mode of painting, and European modernism into greater relationship with dailiness. Yet for all their immediacy, these works are also about time. Like haiku, they distill moments, even while hinting that the apparent stillness is fleeting. In each, there is a reference to distance traversed: A mountain looms or draws nearer, while the road leads through a corner of the picture. And references to season and slant of light — fall or sunset, spring and dawn — remind us that like the road, time also moves both these places and these travelers on.