Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges) by Ogata Korin
Edo period, after 1709

Tue, Apr 14, 2020

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: ‘Bridges’ in Japanese and Western art

I had planned for some time to write my next essay on a highly anticipated exhibition about kimono which recently opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. But the museum, as well as almost everything else in the UK, has closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. So as I sat at my desk while in confinement at home, I began thinking about links and connections between spaces and people and I thought I could write about bridges in art. Evoking the aforementioned links and connections, as well as travel and crossing boundaries, the theme of the bridge can be found in Japanese as well as in Western art.

The motif of the bridge seems to have been particularly favoured during the Edo period, in paintings and ukiyo-e. One of the most celebrated themes from the Rinpa school is probably the Eight Plank Bridge (Yatsuhashi) inspired by an episode from the Tales of Ise, a 10th-century literary classic. Featured in works by Ogata Kenzan and Ogata Korin in the early 18th century, the Eight Plank Bridge crosses over marshes where irises are blooming. It is fascinating to observe how differently the artists chose to interpret the subject (entirely overlooking the characters and other details in the story) and represent the bridge. Ogata Korin did so on two pairs of folding screens: one (top photo) shows a long bridge composed of several planks at various angles that sweeps diagonally across groups of irises, while the other pair (Nezu Museum, Tokyo) offers an even more abstracted vision. Omitting the bridge altogether, Korin only focused on the irises as an explicit reference to the famous literary work that inspired these screens, and that would have been known by all his learned contemporaries.

Ogata Kenzan also approached the theme on a painting showing a series of connected, flat planks arranged among blooming irises, the text of the poem scattered around them. This is a bold treatment of a classical theme, with calligraphic inscriptions rhythmically arranged around the stylised rendering of the landscape.  

Ukiyo-e artists such as Hiroshige and Hokusai have represented various bridges in Japan, the latter even devoting a series to this specific subject, entitled “Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces.” The delightful prints feature a range of bridges of various shapes and sizes in an array of landscapes, testifying to Hokusai’s great imagination. In “The Hanging-cloud Bridge at Mount Gyodo near Ashikaga,” an impossibly thin bridge connects huts clinging to rocky summits. In contrast, “Tenma Bridge in Settsu Province” depicts the whole length of an immense bridge thronged with people visiting Tenma Tenjin shrine during a festival, their lined-up lanterns echoing the bridge’s arch.

The Hanging-cloud Bridge at Mount Gyodo near Ashikaga
From the series Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces by Katsushika Hokusai
Edo period, ca. 1830
Tenman Bridge at Settsu Province
From the series Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces by Katsushika Hokusai
Edo period, 1760–1849

Japanese woodblock prints were greatly admired by French artists of the late 19th century, becoming a source of inspiration for many, among them the Impressionist master Claude Monet. In Giverny outside of Paris where he spent his final years, the artist lived in a house where ukiyo-e from his large collection were on display. Monet meticulously cultivated a wonderful garden featuring the waterlilies he so famously painted, as well as a pond and a footbridge. Designed according to his specifications, the arched wooden bridge was a tribute to his fascination for Japan. Similar bridges appearing on some of the prints he owned very likely inspired him, but he had his painted in green, which would not have occurred in Japan.

The bridge had become a favourite subject of Monet who depicted it numerous times. It often occupies a central position and spans the entire width of the canvas, its green hue blending softly with the vegetation around it.

Bridges also happen to be one of the main subjects in the work of contemporary photographer Toshio Shibata. Exploring the landscape of his native country, Shibata highlights the presence of man-made structures in nature and creates arresting compositions that sometimes take an abstract dimension. Often eliminating any reference to the sky, as in ‘Okawa village bridge,’ he opens our eyes to their beauty and sculptural presence.

Hoping that we will all be able to cross bridges again soon, I look forward to taking strolls and to the pleasure of visiting the kimono exhibition in London, which will be the subject of my next essay.

Sophie RICHARD

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Art Historian

Sophie RICHARD

Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)

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