Last night I had opted for a Bohemian evening and so naturally took myself by train to Winchester. I would not like to give the impression that Winchester is a hot-bed of the counter-culture and awash with those of an artistic temperament espousing free love and voluntary poverty – though it may be for all I know (but somehow I doubt it) – as I went there for a night of music from a region roughly cognate with today’s Czech Republic.
The Winchester Chamber Music Festival did not disappoint – Martinů and Janáček were good, but the highlight was Dvořák’s rarely played String Quintet in G: a piece that deserves to be performed a lot more frequently. Before the gig, we had a talk from four of the musicians on the question “What is chamber music?”. This question proved difficult, but entertaining to fail to convincingly answer. The concert took place in the Winchester Discovery Centre – which is basically the slightly augmented Winchester Library – which does have its own performance space: with seriously uncomfortable seating for the long of leg and muscular of buttock. However, it is not my glutes – or even those of my fellow audience members or musicians that this post is about. Whilst I didn’t check in detail, all of these appeared to be modestly covered for the whole evening.
As part of its augmentation, Winchester Library also has a small gallery space and this was playing host to the woodblock prints that make up Utagawa Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō Road. Despite the name, Hiroshima produced 55 prints of scenes from the road, most including landscape but also human figures. These were produced in the middle of the 19th century, towards the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. Now, I will readily admit that my knowledge of Japan is a tad limited – informed by modest exposure to its art, samurai movies, karaoke and Lost in Translation – and so these prints came as a wonderful surprise. The landscapes were as beautiful, perhaps more so, than I had been expecting with some inspired representations of the weather but it was the human figures which were the revelation. I would assume that in at least some of the prints were intended to be comic – or certainly they had that impact on me. Whilst the higher status figures were dressed somewhat as expected, the porters and other “workers” wore very little – even in deep snow they had bare legs and arms. It would seem that the typical 19th century Japanese porter would put the hardiness of the modern Tyneside youth to shame. Away from the snow, your typical porter wore nothing but a thong (and, sometimes a flat, conical hat) – a little more substantial than some modern underwear of the same name but much less so that that used by the Sumo practitioner – and as a result there were a surprisingly large (if even) number of bare buttocks on show. In one print, a pair is facing directly at the viewer – and I swear they follow you around the room! As so often, a half-formed stereotype proves to be misleading with Japanese art lying substantially closer to a McGill postcard than I ever dreamt.