How does a city develop a distinct visual identity?

This question became a major theme in Japanese art during the Edo period (1615-1868). Designers of woodblock prints helped to encourage the newly emerging domestic travel industry by publishing images of "famous places" (meisho) throughout the country. Often, these scenes were located in or around urban centers, such as the capital of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), and the sites became immediately recognizable symbols of those cities.

In the late 19th century, with the assistance of his adopted son Hiroshige II (1826–1869), the Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) revolutionized the genre of landscape art through the publication of an ambitious suite of woodblock prints, entitled One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei, 1856–59). Actually consisting of 119 images, this series not only highlights well-known vistas around the capital, it reflects specific ways in which the city evolved over its previous history of roughly 250 years.

Hiroshige’s City: From Edo to Tokyo presents numerous works from Hiroshige’s series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo side by side with other works from which the artist drew inspiration, particularly the multi-volume text Illustrations of Famous Places in Edo (Edo meisho zue, 1834–36), written over three generations by the family of Saitō Chōshū (1737–1799) and illustrated by Hasegawa Settan (d. 1843). The artworks featured in this exhibition highlight three different stages of the capital’s development: its natural appearance before the encroachment of humans, the ways in which residents cultivated and modeled the environment, and the rise of commercial industry.

Hiroshige’s City: From Edo to Tokyo concludes with works by two contemporary Japanese artists – lithographer Motoda Hisaharu (b. 1973) and video artist Yoshimura Ayako – who imagine the dangers that urban development may ultimately pose. In the 21st century, we are witnessing the continual growth of Tokyo and other cities throughout the world. What meaning does Hiroshige’s print series hold for us in this contemporary context?