Like the Japanese poetic form, the haiku, with its minimalist structure devoid of superfluous decoration, the Japanese woodcut is a synthesis of mood, skill, balance and line.
Now, in a break from the Ikon Gallery's normal contemporary-art programme, the British artist Julian Opie has curated an exhibition of woodblock prints from the British Museum by the 19th-century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige, demonstrating the continuing relevance that historical art practices can have on contemporary artists.
The role that Oriental and Japanese art had on European modernism has been well documented. Hiroshige's Plum Estate, Kameido, with its white blossom against a pink evening sky, was famously copied by Van Gogh, and the Japanese influence can be seen in work from Gauguin to the Arts and Crafts movement. Opie's preference is for the Japanese artist's later work, which tends to accentuate aesthetic concerns over narrative. His interest is not surprising given that both he and Hiroshige focus on landscape and figures, refining them into stylised, flattened compositions that evolve into abstractions of everyday life.
Born in Tokyo (or, as it was then known, Edo) in 1797, the son of a fire-warden, Hiroshige studied printmaking and painting to became an illustrator of story books, as well as following briefly in his father's footsteps. Concentrating on making landscape prints of well-known Japanese views, it was his publication of The Fifty-three Stations of the Rokaido Road, around 1833, that secured his reputation. His prints functioned as souvenirs for visitors, for Edo was, at the time, one of the biggest cities in the world.
The three series shown here, Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces 1856, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo 1856–58 and Thirty-six Views of Fuji 1858, were made at the end of the artist's career, and feature the novel, and for the time unconventional, vertical format, evoking both the Chinese hanging scroll and the print form known as tansaku, used for traditional poem cards. An astonishing luminescence of colour was achieved by the frequent occurrence of bokashi, a technique where the ink was only partially wiped off the block before printing to create extraordinary cross-fading effects that can be seen in the variations of light in the sky and the wonderful modulations of blue in the sea.
Hiroshige was a bit of an armchair traveller, relying on images from gazetteers known as meisho zue, or "picture-views of famous places", but with consummate skill he transformed these small, black, map-like drawings into stupendous single-sheet multi-coloured "brocade prints", nishikie-e, four times the printed area of a typical book page.
His lowered viewpoint and the establishment of a horizon line for greater immediacy, along with his experimentation with the vertical format that dramatically played with new angles and compositional styles, created something entirely his own; works that are both evocative and beguiling, that fuse the simplification of subject matter with the aesthetics of mood to create images that are at the same time poignant and redolent with meaning.
Also included are some fascinating earlier sketchbooks, and the exhibition concludes with three glorious triptychs known as Snow, Moon and Flower, which are breathtaking in their subtlety and scope. The flowers are actually the whirlpools and spirals of breaking waves of the Naruto Straits, while the other two works show a moonlight bay and the Mountain River on the Kiso Road blanketed by the great silence of falling snow.
Utagawa Hiroshige The Moon Reflected at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham until 20 January 2008