Big grey cities hushed
A recent visit to the Art Institute in Chicago allowed me the opportunity to see about 60 of Hiroshige’s winter scenes, on display this winter from amongst their magnificent collection of hundreds of ukiyo-e prints. Nothing better prepares you for the viewing of winter art than a walk to the Art Institute, with the wind knifing off of Lake Michigan at sub-zero clips, making numerous layers and overcoats laughably inadequate.
In Hiroshige’s works, the snow is always beautiful, in play with the natural world of birds and water fowl, branches, leaves, flowers. People, when you see them at all, are tiny figures on the horizon or at a distance, struggling along under loads or on top of horses, barely registering in the magnitude of the weather.
We moderns are spoiled, complaining so vigorously at the ravages of winter, the flight delays, the cancelled work or school, the inconveniences, the dangerous driving, the grey slush. But observing the human beings in Hiroshige’s winter scenes is humbling. The servants leading their masters’ animals or carrying their burdens are often bare legged, knee-deep in snow. The privileged few on horseback are wearing capes made of straw. Were they not people like us, who suffer from cold and exposure? I think they were. Yet somehow in Hiroshige’s world, like the trees and rocks and pathways engulfed in winter, there is an acceptance of one’s place in the natural order, a patience and an endurance.
Does that mean those people would not have welcomed a down jacket, if such a thing existed? No. But when I’m shivering outside, fortunate to be bundled and equipped for the cold, I think of those people long ago, trekking along wearing straw capes and shoes, and I am grateful.