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Saturday Volcano Art: Hiroshige II, ‘Mount Asama’ (1859) 29 August 2009

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Hiroshige II, 'Mount Asama' (1859)

The artist known as Hiroshige II (1826-69) was a student of the great ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who has already featured in this series. He became his master’s adopted son and married his daughter, Tatsu, and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, used his name; he had previously signed himself as Shigenobu. To avoid confusion, he is generally known as Hiroshige II. There is also a Hiroshige III, who was also the first Hiroshige’s adopted son and also married to Tatsu, but let’s not get into that here.

Mount Asama, the most active volcano on Honshu, is pictured in this image from Hiroshige II’s series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in the Provinces, published 1859-61. At the time this print was made the most recent significant eruption of Asama had occurred around 30 years earlier, in 1815, while in 1783 the volcano had produced one of the largest and most destructive eruptions (VEI=4) in modern Japanese history.

The print shows the volcano viewed from the south-east: on the left is the ridge of the Korufu-yama arc, remnant of an older volcano. The summit of Asama is producing brownish-grey emissions and is covered with recent ashfall and crowned with large boulders. The reddish-purple cloud, edged with yellow, that reaches across the distant ridge to encircle the volcano gives the scene a threatening air, emphasized by the towering flanks of the mountain (their steepness exaggerated by the artist) and the tiny, fragile details of the landscape in the foreground – trees, bushes, hurrying figures. There is a pervasive sense of unease that is absent from the first Hiroshige’s landscapes: a brooding atmosphere of latent threat. In this image the volcano is a grey monster, overshadowing the landscape and stirring in its sleep.

That sense of latent threat is by no means misleading. When this print was published Asama’s half-century of quiescence was coming to an end. In 1869 a VEI=2 event marked the beginning of a pattern of frequent eruptions (over fifty between 1875 and 2008) that has continued to the present day. Asama’s most recent eruption was in February 2009.

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