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Language: English / Japanese
Issue Eight / Essay
“Ukiyo-e translates to pictures of the floating world”

A Wayfarer’s Series: The View from Above

Words by Austin Sailsbury Photographs by Parker Fitzgerald

Austin Sailsbury tells a story about the path of discovery below, of connectedness seen from above and the creative intersection of a French master and Japanese craftsmanship.

Paris, when viewed from above, is a carefully planned, beautifully realized city, with houses, boulevards, churches and rivers each in its proper place, as if the metropolis, like a disciplined topiary, was always meant to be shaped so neatly. Seen from the Eiffel Tower, the clusters of buildings are ivory-faced, nickel-hatted and elegant. Each structure is a minor variation of its neighbor; the city is governed by a dress code, a style that identifies and defines it: the “white city” by day, the City of Light by night. From high above this well-ordered masterpiece of master planning, one can imagine Paris being created in a single act of inspired and precise craftsmanship—as if some sculptor-deity long ago decided to bless the world with the gift of a great white city.

But cities, of course, are not the result of a single act of inspiration; they are the culmination of a place’s geography, history and people, perpetually taking from and adding to their own history. In this way, a city, like each of its inhabitants, is a living story.

And while Paris was “remade” by Napoleon III to be more coherent, it is still very much a great patchwork with its winding streets stitching together ancient neighborhoods, its old temples worn from both use and neglect, its shops and homes and gardens colored by the light of a thousand years of human stories. Stories of struggle and hope, family and friendship, victory and defeat. Stories of ideas and revolution, disappointment and innovation. Stories of discovery and inspiration.

I stumbled into one of these Parisian stories on a summer morning: a story about art and a faraway land and the discovery of a book of mysterious pictures. Most of all, a story about the path of discovery below and of connectedness seen from above.

A sudden rain shower took me, seeking shelter, into La Porte du Jardin—the kind of bookshop that Parisians find remarkably unremarkable but visitors find impossibly charming—with its hand-painted sign, its humorless owner and its clusters of books stacked about with varying degrees of care. It was the kind of wonderfully manic place where, if you were in a hurry to find something specific, you probably wouldn’t find anything. But if, like me, you had wandered into the Porte du Jardin by accident, well then, every book was a treasure waiting to be discovered.

I found myself drawn to the shop’s stacks of livres d’art. All the classics were there: Michelangelo and the Italians, the American realists and, of course, the French Impressionists. But as I browsed, thumbing through books devoted to “the masters,” I came to a book and a name unknown to me: Henri Rivière.

I made out from the dust jacket that Rivière was a Frenchman living in Paris and Brittany who had worked in the early 20th century. But it was the artwork itself that quickly captured my attention: the colorful prints were very 19th century with their warm pastel scenes of ordinary people and landscapes, but they were also very…something else. The colors were bold and neat, the figures and trees and cliffs outlined in thick, definitive lines. There was no vagueness in Rivière’s intent—he wasn’t creating impressions. He was creating snapshots as they might be taken through the lens of a child’s imagination: peasants laying out laundry in the sun, a wave exploding against a rock, the solemn procession of pallbearers through a village. Each of the prints was simplistic and yet somehow subtly sophisticated. I was instantly charmed by the book, by the art inside it and by the unexpected delight of a new discovery.

When the rain had passed, I stepped out into the wet street, book in hand, to wander away the rest of the day. Little did I know that my chance discovery of Rivière would lead to an exploration of what it means to be inspired by the past, what it means to innovate by bridging creative and cultural islands and how even the most seemingly simple works of art can be the result of painstaking craftsmanship.

Born in France in 1864, Rivière spent his life creating. He worked in photography, set design, publishing, painting, printmaking and in creating whimsical “shadow plays” at the Chat Noir café in the Montmartre district, but Rivière is best known for his woodcut and lithographic prints. It was these bold prints that had first caught my eye, with their charming scenes of rural and urban French life, rendered with that certain warm stylistic something else that I couldn’t exactly identify.

That something else, as it turns out, has a direct, unmistakable heritage in the stylized genre of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. “Ukiyo-e” translates to “pictures of the floating world,” and the art form dates back to the 17th century, though other forms of woodblock printing have existed for over a thousand years. The style is quintessentially Japanese: rich in color, highly detailed and evocative of an exotic and mysterious time and place.

And this is where the story of Japanese printmaking, the Frenchman Rivière and the Wayfarer’s discovery intersect. This is the view from above.

When I first found the book of Rivière prints in Paris, I knew nothing of ukiyo-e. After buying the book, I didn’t spend much time looking into the painstaking techniques of lithography and wood- block printing. I also knew nothing of the wave of Japonisme that had swept through western Europe at the end of the 19th century, influencing Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Rivière and others. I didn’t know that Rivière’s use of high horizon lines, shadowless, off-center subjects and diagonal axes was borrowed from the ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai. But, unquestionably, the craft of Hokusai’s art matriculates through Rivière’s. Inspiration begets inspiration. Beauty begets beauty. This is the legacy of great craftspeople: the best of what is made by one generation lives on as seed for future makers. Woven into the history of all made things is an intricate and mysterious legacy of discovery and inspiration. In this way, creativity is a sprawling city, the architecture of the “new” being always built with the collected stones of ancestral structures.

Where Hokusai was inspired by Mt. Fuji and provincial bridges, he applied the craft of woodblock printing to create art that would eventually travel west. Nearly 100 years later, a Frenchman would fall in love with the old master’s work, modernize his techniques and infuse the Japanese aesthetic with the scenes and colors of his home country. Another 100 years after that, traveling in a foreign land, I serendipitously stumbled upon a book of colorful prints that would inspire me, challenging the way I understand landscapes and composition and the use of color.

We have no choice but to live at street level—the time and place of our individual intersection with history and circumstance. But from above, from the perspective of balconies and towers and tall tree branches, that’s where we can see best—where we can catch glimpses of the boulevards that connect us with the wayfarers of the past and those that will discover our stories in some little bookshop on a rainy morning in the future.

Austin Sailsbury works and writes in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is currently at work on his first novel. 

Endnotes: Valérie Sueur-Hermel, Henri Rivière: Paysages Bretons: Études de Vagues (Langlaude, 2011). 
Armond Fields, Henri Rivière (Olympic Marketing Corp, 1983). 

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