The Guimet Museum, in Paris, is currently showing a unique collection of prints, uchiwa-e, by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) originally intended to decorate fans. Made between the 1830s and 1850s, they are considered by some as among the rarest and most elaborate works the artist produced. Hiroshige was one of the last great image makers of the Edo period and his name has become synonymous with ukiyo-e print-making, to which he devoted his life. The exhibition uses the fan prints to reveal the graphic inventiveness and diversity of his work, from subject matter such as the famous sites of the city of Edo and the landscapes of Japanese provinces, to the more subtle compositions of flowers and birds, festivals, beauties, and legends. All the works come from the Georges Leskowicz Collection, which includes a large group of Hiroshige fan leaves. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London also holds a collection of over 120 of these prints (with many available to view online).

Uchiwa – A Fixed and with Handle

A seasonal and ephemeral accessory, this type of flat bamboo fan, uchiwa (fixed fan with handle) rose to popularity in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868) and became one of the mediums for expressing creativity for the masters of ukiyo-e. Demand for these fans began to rise by the end of the 18th century, when they started to be sold during the hot summer months by peddlers, at temporary stalls during festivals, and along the pilgrim routes.

Publishers of prints soon realised that money could be made by selling prints for fans alongside the usual ukiyo-e souvenir prints with fan prints eventually being specifically commissioned by publishers from famous artists. However, as daily-use objects often of low value, they were ultimately disposable, so the majority of Edo-period fans have disappeared. However some prints that have survived – mainly unused – were uncut and in their first printing. In this form, they were never mounted on a frame or used and have been preserved by print publishers or collectors. Many of these works are now unique and kept in museum and private collections around the world.

Hiroshige’s Prints for Fans

Hiroshige created more than 650 prints intended for this everyday accessory. This exhibition, of some 90 works, invites you to discover the artist’s great graphic creativity, as well as exploring the favourites themes of the artist. The works on display depict famous sites in the city of Edo (now Tokyo). In his prints, we discover urban views, pleasure gardens, temples, places of entertainment and excursions, as well as the ‘pleasure district’ of Yoshiwara. The prints are often marked by the seasons, by particular times of the day, rituals or festivals, and always animated by characters, often female. The landscapes he created describe, with great documentary fidelity, maritime views, places of pilgrimage, or even the crossing of rivers at picturesque spots.

Hiroshige was born under the name of Ando Tokutaro in 1797 and he was apprenticed early in life. His father was a fire warden of samurai stock. When his father and mother both died within a year of each other when he was twelve, the duty of protecting Edo castle from fire was handed down to the orphaned Ando. At fourteen, Ando became a pupil of the celebrated ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Yoyahiro, and from there his infatuation with the world of print-making developed. Working under the newly-acquired name of Hiroshige, he began to depict the subjects upon which the floating world artists focused: the bijinga (courtesans) and yakushae (actors), who sought celebrity in the entertainment district in Edo. Hiroshige’s apprentice work included book illustrations and single-sheet ukiyo-e prints of female beauties, as well as portraits of kabuki actors in the Utagawa style.

The artist eventually gave up these figure prints in favour of the landscapes for which he found fame, and in this change of subject, he was influenced by his contemporary and fellow ukiyo-e master Hokusai Katsushika. Hiroshige began producing landscapes between 1829 and 1830, and also at this time, created an increasing number of bird and flower prints.

Travelling along the Tokaido Highway

In 1832, Hiroshige travelled along the Tokaido highway between Edo and Kyoto, resting at the 53 stations which lined the road. He had applied to join the entourage of the shogun Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841), who wanted to present an annual gift of a horse to the Emperor at the Kyoto court – and was accepted. His publisher seized this opportunity and commissioned Hiroshige to make sketches for a set of woodblock prints. This journey eventually became the basis of his Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, a collection of 55 landscape prints for which Hiroshige has long since been celebrated. Only a few prints from this series is famous today, but at the time they were all considered extraordinary and original – offering a new way to view the Japanese landscape – and were thus highly in demand. In this collection of prints, Hiroshige vividly depicts the route along Honshu’s eastern coastline, down which endless crowds of itinerant merchants, pilgrims, artisans and daimyo travelled from Edo to Kyoto. The series – a move away from subject-focused woodblock prints – followed Hokusai’s famous Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji in contributing to the burgeoning ukiyo-e style of meisho (famous views).

However, because of the popularity of this landscape prints series, there are great differences between the quality of the impressions from the numerous editions that were printed.

Depictions of the Floating World

Depictions of the Floating World, along with fashionable fictional subjects that were highly popular and greatly enjoyed by Edo audiences, are also illustrated in Hiroshige’s fan prints, A wide variety of subjects portray popular culture, from elegant beauties in everyday settings, the contemporary repertoire of kabuki theatre, even burlesque novels, as well as scenes associated with famous, literary themes and the classics. Themes of the natural world, such as flowers, plants, birds and animals also occupy an important place among the prints in the exhibition.

History of the Fan in Japan

The fan in Japanese culture has a long history. The writer UA Casal in his 1960 essay, The Lore of the Japanese Fan, states that the oldest Japanese reference to a fan seems to occur in a record of Emperor Yuryaku (457-479), where an order appears for a silken hat and a sashiba (a leaf-shape stuck on a pole) was ordered to ornament the palace. They seem to be first introduced for ritual or ceremonial use. Fan reconstructions made from haniwa (clay grave figures) appear to show that the earliest sashiba were large, round shields with a number of radiating struts with a longish handle supporting the centre. Examples from the Nara-period (710-784) Inner Shrine at Ise were made of silk or hemp stretched over similar round frames. Early fans were imported from China and by the Tang dynasty (618-907) ‘round’ fixed-shapes fans were recorded as being popular.

These fans most probably would have appeared in Japan with the arrival of Buddhism and the flourishing of Japan and its culture in the early Nara period. However, as William E Harkins in his 1994 article The Japanese Fan in Japanese Prints, points out, although the uchiwa (the Chinese-style fan with handle) was used by all classes it lacked the prestige and aesthetic of the ogi (folding fan), which was the preferred fan of the wealthier classes, as well as the fan used at the Kyoto court, although here it was not related to a ceremonial or ritual function. By the Edo period, with the rise of the merchant and artisan classes, the ogi also became the preferred style used by the chonin, or merchant classes.

This exhibition reveals that the height of popularity for the uchiwa fan and associated prints began in the mid 19th century to feed the public’s demand. This allowed great numbers of specially sized prints to be produced and pasted on to fan stock using favourite and topical subjects such as landscapes, seasonal themes, fashionable beauties, actors, classical tales and legends. Hiroshige’s fan prints allow us to see a snapshot of this world – all through an everyday, domestic, object.

Until 29 May 2023, Musée Guimet, Paris, guimet.fr. Catalogue available: Hiroshige et l’eventail; voyage dans le Japon du XIXth siècle, Euro 13.50