I put off going to the Snow Country exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until now (and you thought I was just slow off the mark! Shame on you) so as to get the full shivery effect of looking at snow in the depths of winter. And it worked. What with the amount of snow in the pictures and the chilly temperature of the room they’re displayed in you could practically see our breath forming ice crystals in the air by the time we left. But in a good way.
Snow Country is an exhibition of ukiyo-e (floating world pictures) by some of the greatest masters of woodblock prints and they all feature snow. I’ve just picked out my favourites to show you – the ones that really made us clutch our coats around us and hear the crunch of thick snow underfoot.
Let’s start with this one – Contemplating the snow from inside by Ogata Gekko. Two women, wrapped up warm with a portable charcoal brazier close at hand have slid back the paper screen to look out over the snowy landscape. I love the contrast of the warmth inside with the icy scene outside.
We voted this one our favourite in the whole exhibition – I’ve shown a detail of it above. Also by Ogata Gekko, it’s called The sleeping-dragon plum tree at Kameido. Look at the prints of the women’s wooden clogs in the snow, and the snow on their umbrellas. Feeling the need of another jumper yet?
How about some straightforward landscape? This is the Kintai bridge in Suo Province by Utagawa Hiroshige II (adopted son of the more famous Hiroshige of Great Wave fame). The bridge’s name means ‘the bridge of the brocade sash’ and it’s at Iwakuni, now in Yamagashi prefecture.
This one, Mountain and river on the Kiso road is by the famous Hiroshige. It shows the Kisokaidô – the mountain road between Edo and Kyoto. It makes me think of Chikamatsu’s play, The Courier for Hell (Meido no Hikyaku) in which the lovers flee deep into the snowy mountains to die amidst the purity and whiteness. Even today, according to a recent book on suicide, death in the snow is rated the most admired suicide method by Japanese people.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi – Gentoku visits Kômei in the snow. This is actually one panel of a triptych but I’ve chosen it because I love the way the hermit Kômei sits so snugly inside his straw hut.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi – Black hood. Now this lady knows how to wrap up warm – except for her poor feet with no socks on! Apparently courtesans always went around in bare feet.
Ogata Gekko – Sakurada Gate – approaching the castle, third day of the third month. An assassin waits outside the gate to Edo Castle. Sensibly, he’s brought a straw mat to hide his face and protect him from the falling snow.
Utagawa Kuniyasu – Kabuki actors Segawa Kikunojô V and Bandô Mitsugorô III . This pair look like they’re having a snowball fight. The kabuki does spectacular snow scenes using little bits of paper dropped from baskets above the stage.
I love this one. It’s by Totoya Hokkei and it’s called Plum and Painted Shell. It refers to the shell matching game where you have to match up poems or pictures painted inside the two halves of a shell. In the picture the gentleman is letting himself be distracted from the game by the lady beside him. But, of course, he’s also part of the game as he’s painted inside a half shell. I wonder what’s inside the other half?
I have to end on this wonderfully-angled picture of an eagle: Utagawa Hiroshige – Fukugawa Susaki and Jûmantsubo. An eagle prepares to dive for prey over the Jûmantsubo marshes seen from Fukugawa Susaki which is a narrow spit of land along Edo Bay.
All the images come from the Fitzwilliam Online Exhibition. I took photos but they’re not very good – boy do I hate glass display cases and dim lighting – so I decided not to use them. But, to be honest, you really have to go and stand in front of the originals to get the full effect. I know, I’m making you get on a train again, but trust me, the effort is worth it.
The exhibition is on until 13 January 2013 so you still have time to go and shiver at their beauty yourself. Go soon enough and you can also admire the Christmas tree in the truly amazing entrance hall and staircase of the Museum.
That’s made you feel a bit warmer, hasn’t it?