Kiyochika and Whistler

Kiyochika, View of Tokyo’s Shin-Ohasi Bridge in Rain, 1876, Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler/Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“Kiyochika: Master of the Night” and “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” overlapping exhibitions at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C., complement each other beautifully and explore the poetics of the cityscape. The revelation for many viewers will be the work of Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), who witnessed the modernization of Japan and responded in a series of woodblock prints. He completed ninety-three of a proposed one hundred views of Tokyo; more than half of these are in the exhibition. Born in Edo, Kiyochika served as a minor retainer of the shogun and followed him into exile when the regime changed in 1868. Returning in 1874, the self-taught artist found a city, renamed Tokyo, of gaslight, railroads and brick buildings. Some of his prints document these changes and record notable events, such as The Outbreak of Fire Seen from Hisamatsu (1881).

Most of Kiyochika’s prints, however, have a different sensibility. Unlike many Ukiyo-e prints, with their bold colors and colorful characters, Kiyochika’s scenes are almost monochromatic. Many are empty of human presence; where figures appear, they tend to be shadowy observers. He is a master of fading light, of times of day when contours are blurred or flattened. In Sumida River by Night (1881), a couple in traditional garb are seen in shadowy silhouette, like Javanese puppets or the observer figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. They seem isolated, lost in their own thoughts. Kiyochika uses a palette of greys, and his only color—a warm peach—comes from the windows of the buildings on the far shore and the light reflections on the water. Figures such as the man and the woman in this print, flâneurs of twilight, appear often, perhaps as surrogates for the artist. Kiyochika shows more detail in View of Tokyo’s Shin-Ohasi Bridge in Rain (1876): the arched bridge, a few boats making sharp little shapes, a woman with a striking parasol of concentric black and white walking along the shore. But the weather softens the scene in a range of greys. The red and blue of the woman’s clothing add a tiny grace note of vibrancy.

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) also explored the pictorial possibilities of cities in an original idiom. Eighty works—prints, oil paintings, watercolors and pastels—make up “An American in London.” The etchings known as the Thames Set (1859–61) demonstrate a zest for the working life of the river, along with the linear dynamic of wharves and ships bristling with rigging. In paintings such as The Thames in Ice: The 25th December (1860), mist and smoke provide a poetic counterpoint to the prose of men laboring in cold weather.

Whistler was a connoisseur of the unexpectedly beautiful perceptual effects of fog and smoke. On a snowy evening, the shop-lined streets of Chelsea take on an urban melancholy that seems to anticipate Edward Hopper. But Whistler’s urbanism has less to do with proto-existentialism than with the Aesthetic worldview, a philosophy and practice influenced by Asian art. In Whistler’s pastel Nocturne: Battersea Bridge (1872–73), the bold arch of the span provides visual scaffolding. Tender blues and purples capture the mood of the river and sky. For Whistler, Battersea Bridge functions as an iconic shape, like Mount Fuji in a Japanese print. Whistler argued that “the same color ought to appear in the picture continually here and there…in this way the whole will form a harmony. Look how well the Japanese understood this.”

Both Kiyochika and Whistler found beauty in places that the less visually alert viewer might have missed. In Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach (1863), Whistler shows us a stretch of the Thames where boats ply their trade and smokestacks rise on the shoreline, but his decision to drag the paint to mimic the slick, flowing weight of the river is what is truly revelatory. Kiyochika depicts a train belching fire as it crosses a bridge in View of Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon (1879), finding as much poetry in the train’s reflection in the water as in the sky drama above. Juxtaposing these two artists illuminates the role that art plays in enriching our perception of the world. “Kiyochika: Master of the Night” is on view through July 27, 2014. “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames” is on view through August 17, 2014. Arthur M. Sackler/Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, D.C. 20013.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2014, Volume 31, Number 3