I have wanted to see this exhibition for almost a year. Journey Along the Kisokaidō: From Hiroshige to Kuniyoshi opened at the Musée Cernuschi last fall, but before I could book a ticket, France went back into lockdown and museums closed their doors. Since then, I waited patiently to see if Journey Along the Kisokaidō would return once the lockdown was over. Thankfully, it did, and after months of waiting, I finally had the chance to see it. Happily, I can report that this exhibition was 100% worth the wait.
Journey Along the Kisokaidō
The Kisokaidō was one of five routes that connected modern day Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo period of Japan. There were 69 stations, or rest stops, located along the Kisokaidō for the thousands of travellers who crossed this route every year. And it wasn’t just merchants and tradespeople who made the journey. In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists were commissioned to capture life on the road of the Kisokaidō and those 69 stations. Journey Along the Kisokaidō showcases the work of four artists; Keisai Eisen, Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kunisada, and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, with many of the artworks being displayed for the first time in public. And they were extraordinary.
Keisai Eisen and Utagawa Hiroshige
The exhibition starts with 71 images from Eisen and Hiroshige. These images, like the one above, depict life on the Kisokaidō, including all of the trials and tribulations of travelling. There are images of travellers getting caught in the rain and hauling their luggage down the road. There are scenes of negotiations with locals and acts of hospitality in the form of food and shelter. But what was most striking was the images of the scenery and landscape of the route itself. I know from experience that Japan is a stunningly gorgeous country, and Eisen and Hiroshige have rendered it beautifully.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the artworks by Utagawa Kunisada were not able to be present in the museum. However, the Musée Cernuschi did not let this deter them. Digital projections were used to display these images instead, and while I would have preferred to see the artwork in person, I still loved seeing the images. Kunisada depicts the different stages of the Kisokaidō through images of famous kabuki actors of the 19th century. In fact, some of the images are so accurate, it is said that people in 19th century Japan would have been able to recognize their favourites. These artworks are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, so if you happen to be in that vicinity, I highly recommend a visit. I will live vicariously through you!
Kunisada and Kuniyoshi were fierce rivals in their lifetimes, and you can see their influence on each other in the final section of this exhibition. Kuniyoshi took his inspiration from Japanese folklore and mythology for his Kisokaidō images. Each piece features a scene from a story, inspired by one of the stations along the route. I could have spent hours staring at these artworks, and I know I will spend hours in the near future looking up all of the stories that were depicted so that I can better understand their connection to the Kisokaidō.
A Journey that was Worth the Wait
In addition to the artworks, the exhibition also showcased various artifacts, tools, and traveller’s supplies that were depicted in the images. There was also a video explaining the technique of ukiyo-e, the artistic style of the pieces, which showed how artists use a series of woodblocks and paint to create the artwork. Finally, Journey Along the Kisokaidō marked the first time ever that I found myself purchasing the exhibition catalogue. Not only did I want a copy of all of the gorgeous images, but I also wanted a record of all the Japanese mythology, folklore, and kabuki that I now have to look up. By the time I left, my head was positively swimming with everything I had seen, learned, and still had to learn, and it was an incredible feeling. I don’t know if ‘museum high’ is a thing, but if it is, I definitely had it.
Journey Along the Kisokaidō: From Hiroshige to Kuniyoshi is currently running at the Musée Cernuschi until August 8th. I cannot recommend it more highly.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.