A fashionable accessory
At the end of the 17th century, the use of the summer fan spread in Japan. This screen, made up of engravings glued to a bamboo support, was soon adorned with figures of kabuki actors, then with landscapes, refined animal or floral motifs. In the middle of the 18th century, the fashion was such that the greatest artists of Ukiyo-e prints, such as Hokusai, were asked to create fan leaves. Hiroshige (1797-1858), one of the last great image makers of this Edo period, is said to have produced more than 650, many of which unfortunately have disappeared. Reproduced in a superb book (1), 120 of them belonging to the Georges-Leskowicz Foundation bear witness to superb creativity.
A special season
On this screen sheet, Hiroshige depicted a scene of rice transplanting, at a site identified as Fuchu, west of Edo (present-day Tokyo). This operation was carried out at the end of spring, when the fans were beginning to bloom in the stalls. Transplanting was traditionally done by women. Hiroshige, who liked to sketch patterns on the spot in his notebooks, perfectly captured the exhausting gesture of the workers, their backs bent, their feet in the water, their heads protected from sunstroke by their large hats. With humour, it shows one of them raising her head, as if to listen to the two other women seated, deep in conversation, at the foot of a tree. Their relaxed pose, pipe in mouth for one, near a tea tray, contrasts with that of the transplanters.
From earth to sky
A venerable tree frames the composition on the right. On the left, three zigzag diagonals guide the viewer’s gaze from earth to sky. The first climbs along the trio of workers. The second branches off to follow the flight of two white herons that a fine net stretched over a central stake prevents them from pecking at the future harvest. The last diagonal leaves to the right over the tops of the trees and rises up to a branch that you can guess is attached to the large trunk at the start. The loop is thus closed. With consummate art, Hiroshige plays with the circular shape of the fan.
An ultramodern blue
The originality of this print is also due to its monochrome character, except for the title and signature cartouches. Its subtle gradations of blue “were made possible thanks to the importation into Japan by the Dutch, from the end of the 18th century, of a chemical dye, Prussian blue, more stable to light and more suitable for xylographic impression than traditional indigo”, writes Christophe Marquet, director of studies at the French School of the Far East, in the book on Hiroshige’s fans. The latter will be one of the masters of these monochrome prints, to the point that we now speak of “Hiroshige blue”.
Three key players
The artist signed “Drawn by Hiroshige” in the cartridge located at the bottom right. The top cartouche, in the shape of a fan, gives us the name of the publisher: Ibaya Kyubei. More discreetly, a third actor has affixed the small stamps in blue at the bottom of the print on the left. It was the censorship that, from 1810, began to control the production of these prints to prohibit themes related to luxury and pleasures. Here, the ideograms indicate “visa of the year of the Monkey”. This allows us to precisely date this print to 1836. It is thus one of the very first fan engravings made by Hiroshige.