BP Portrait Award 2013 catalogue (2012 BP Travel Award section). Published by The National Portrait Gallery London. 

'In the footsteps of Hiroshige: The Tokaido Highway, and Portraits of Modern Japan'.
Essay by Carl Randall.

The Japanese woodblock print artist Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) made prints depicting the places and people of his day. In 1832, he traveled along The Tokaido Highway, an old trading route running from Tokyo to Kyoto, producing a series of woodblock prints showing the people and landscapes along the path. The prints now serve as a valuable artistic document of life in Japan during that time, forming an important part of the country’s rich cultural heritage.

In June 2012, 180 years after Hiroshige made the journey, I traveled the route to make portraits of the people and their environments as exists today. A great variety of people and places were encountered on the Tokaido Highway, a cross section of old and new Japanese society - from salary men in office blocks, to farmers in rice fields. 

The journey started in the bustling, vibrant capital city of Tokyo, where I was drawn to its densely crowded streets, painting hundreds of residents one by one directly from life (shown in ‘Tokyo’). The depiction of anonymous strangers in crowded public spaces is related to my ongoing interest in urban alienation - the idea of people sharing the same close physical space, but mentally existing in separate private worlds - a phenomenon that can be seen in large cities such as Tokyo. At first glance, the solid clustered mass of faces is intended to look like one living organism, but upon closer inspection the individuality of each face makes itself clear. I wanted the eye to oscillate between seeing the group as one single undifferentiated mass, and also seeing it as a collection of individuals. 

The large centre-piece ‘Shibuya’ depicts the pop-culture, street signs, advertisements and gigantic-outdoor television screens of an area popular with young people, and ‘Uguisudani’ portrays the love hotels and neon signs of one of Tokyo’s red light districts. Visiting other major cities along the route such as Yokohama and Nagoya, I painted other features of modern Japan such as salary men, sushi restaurants and department stores. 

As the highway moves out of cities and into rural areas, elderly rice farmer’s work in rice fields; their backs permanently bowed, skin leathery and wrinkled from a lifetime of rice farming. Visiting these areas gave me the opportunity to look at traditional aspects the culture, such as rice farming, hot springs, and the viewing of fireflies and red autumn leaves.

Finding the modern and urban ever present in the rural, with old and new often sitting side by side, I included elements of the industrial within images of nature - bullet trains and motorways cut through mountains; telegraph poles and tower blocks dot the landscape, and tetra-pods line the coastline. These, and other motifs such as the mobile phone, are used to place the images in the contemporary world, whilst also helping to avoid nostalgic depictions of historical Japan. This seemed particularly important in a place such as Kyoto, the final stop of the journey - a city associated all things traditionally Japanese, and occupying a strong place in the Western imagination. I would hope that my portrayal of familiar Japanese icons such as Sumo wrestlers, Kabuki, Geisha, Zen gardens and Mount Fuji have here been presented in a slightly different way.

A brief description of my working process. Before starting the project, I decided not to aim to faithfully document the exact locations and Hiroshige’s prints were based upon, as I felt a literal approach would be better suited to photography (the route has already been visited by photographers and historians, comparing vantage points in Hiroshige’s prints with those that exist now). I instead used the project as a framework upon which create more imaginative portraits of modern Japan. The result is composite images guided by memory, personal feeling and intimate observations, with priority being given to portraying the atmosphere of a place and its people rather than exact physical characteristics. 

Whilst making my own paintings, I avoided referring to Hiroshige’s prints, so as not to be overly influenced by visual language. However, there are certain aspects of his working process reflected in my own. For example, I did not finish the works whilst on route, instead collecting information to be used later in the studio. I kept the size of a series of fourteen A3 sized paintings to a similar scale of Hiroshige’s original prints, and I sometimes tried to suggest stories through the relationship between figures and environment (echoing his narrative-based prints).

Similar to myself, Hiroshige would often exaggerate or distort reality to suit his pictures. For example, in one print he portrayed men climbing up a steep incline (seemingly to depict the struggle of walking against monsoon rain), whilst the actual location is flat with no slopes; in another he invented mountainous islands to add compositional interest; and in others geographical features are exaggerated for dramatic effect. A similar spirit can be found in my works, taking advantage of the distortions of scale, space and colour afforded by the painter. These works are a view of Japan as seen through the eyes of a visiting European painter – the distortions created by painting through a foreign lens being an important factor in shaping the works.

This unique and exciting opportunity allowed me to further develop my interest in portraiture and Japan, whilst following in the footsteps of a great artist. I felt privileged to be the first portrait based painter to respond to this subject matter, and I would hope that this exhibition generates further public interest in Hiroshige and the fascinating country to which he belongs.