Masterpieces of art have received a respectful digital makeover at Manchester Art Gallery courtesy of photographer Emily Allchurch in a fascinating exhibition that unites old and new artistic techniques.

In fact, In the Footsteps of a Master is mostly a retrospective of the artist’s recent, Japanese-influenced work – not quite, though, since it also includes a new and positively Mancunian offering.

Its major component, Tokyo Story, is a tribute to the artist Utagawa Hiroshige, a late master of the genre of woodblock prints and paintings known as ukiyo-e which flourished in Japan from the 17th to 19th centuries. He is best known for depicting the rural life and scenery of feudal Edo, which would transform itself shortly after his death in 1859 into modern Tokyo. Allchurch has selected ten scenes from Hiroshige’s monumental final work, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-1858), and recreated each one as a digital collage from a reservoir of 6,000 photographs taken on location in Japan. The result is a set of colourful, backlit transparencies displayed in light boxes that appear to be neither painting nor photograph, but something in between.

Detail from Tokyo Story 1 - Lotus Garden (after Hiroshige) by Emily Allchurch, 2011. Photo by Matthew Graham, 2015.Appropriately, the light boxes have illumination rights over their environment, which includes vitrines displaying the original Hiroshige prints to which each transparency graphically relates. The idea is to compare Hiroshige’s traditionally-made work, drawn from collections residing at Manchester, The Whitworth and the British Museum, with Allchurch’s updated representations. Though technically excellent, these feel a little flat at first compared to Hiroshige’s characterful ukiyo-e. It’s only when you get closer to the light boxes that you begin to appreciate their contents, and Allchurch’s eye for the detail of modern Tokyo life.

Tokyo Story 1: Lotus Garden (after Hiroshige) takes Hiroshige’s No 64 Horikiri Iris Garden and credibly urbanises it. A skyline of huts has become citified Tokyo, the traditional iris pickers condensed into a lone flower photographer. The irises themselves are jettisoned in favour of lotus flowers from Tokyo’s Ueno Park. A catfish lurking in the shallows adds fauna, being absent from No 64 Horikiri Iris Garden, as is (unsurprisingly) the discarded drinks can sharing its watery domain. Modern life has encroached upon a classic scene – a bit like Bansky tinkering with a Constable, perhaps.

Detail from Tokyo Story 5 - Cherry Blossom (after Hiroshige) by Emily Allchurch, 2011 (I). Photo by Matthew Graham, 2015.Tokyo Story 5: Cherry Blossom (after Hiroshige) is heavy with Japanese symbols of fortune and a prime example of the prominent, cropped foreground typical of ukiyo-e art, as its Hiroshige ancestor, No 35 Suijin Shrine and Massaki, shows. Branches of cherry blossom, symbol of the transient nature of youthful beauty, frame both images, but Allchurch amplifies the theme by adding fortune-bearing o-mikuji papers to her branches, which are traditionally tied to trees (usually pine) as a means of keeping unfavourable predictions at a safe, arboreal distance. The inclusion of a homeless man eating his meal cross-legged beside his neatly-bundled possessions quietly mocks this superstition.

Allchurch transforms Hiroshige’s No 105 Ommayagashi, a pastoral river scene at dusk, into a scene of urban respite. Tokyo Story 9: Bankside (after Hiroshige) depicts a river populated with unlikely amorous pairings, including two turtles, a basketball and an empty plastic bottle, and a young street art couple gazing out across the river. Although the work has inherited a measure of the tranquillity found in its predecessor, its city-edge feel projects an unconsolidated sense of place. Interestingly, Allchurch took most of the photos used in this composition in the more traditional, less urbanised city of Kyoto, the river being the River Kamo.

Tokyo Story 9 - Bankside by Emily Allchurch, 2011. Photo by Matthew Graham, 2015.The photographic replication of Japanese artistic perfection continues with Allchurch’s Tokaido Road series, also based on another of Hiroshige’s major works, 53 Stations of the Tokaido, Hoeido Edition: 1831-34. Unlike Tokyo Road, these are not light box transparencies but C-type prints, essentially a traditional photo print made from a digital file. In common with its sister series, evidence of collage work in Tokaido Road is neatly obscured through digital post-processing, and results here in a more painterly effect, being printed on paper.

Looking at Tokaido Road: Yui (after Hiroshige) – Allchurch’s take on Hiroshige’s Station 16: Yui (not Station 17, as the gallery text states) – its depiction of the daunting Satta Pass has much in common with a western, Lorrain landscape, with its lone trees and distant mountains, while Saruga Bay might be the Mediterranean. As in the most naturalistic-looking landscapes, though, man is everywhere: in the walking pole bin (foreground left), the green tea plantation, and the cruise liner at sea, not to mention the Expressway curving tentatively away from the reinforced precipice, from where two onlookers gaze out to sea, their view shared by a Japanese wagtail in the plantation below.

From a Mancunian perspective, the exhibition highlight must be Allchurch’s Albert Albert Square, Manchester (after Valette), by Emily Allchurch, 2015. Photo by Matthew Graham, 2015.Square, Manchester (after Valette), located in the atrium on the ground floor, a stunning recreation of Adolphe Valette’s smoggy, evocative Albert Square, Manchester, painted in 1910, which hangs across the way.

Though a seemingly incongruous departure from Hiroshige, this new work is simply Allchurch’s acknowledgement of another master painter, one of Manchester rather than Tokyo. The work was financed by a successful crowdfunding campaign courtesy of Art Fund, for which we should be grateful; for in looking to Valette for inspiration, Allchurch has come up with a classic of her own. Like Valette’s Albert Square, this is no small work, but it’s the pitch-perfect, blueish-grey tone and intrigue of plausible detail that really impresses; from the people standing in the doorway of Manchester Town Hall, to the blur of an umbrella-wielding pedestrian and the grimy, Factory Saturdays CD lying on the ground. This is a work that drips Manchester and, like its Edwardian cousin, Albert Square’s monumental Victorian architecture is as salient as the life it frames. Past and present are vital cohabitants in Allchurch’s work, allowing us to make sense of our own time.

Unsurprisingly, Albert Square, Manchester (after Valette), a celebration of Allchurch’s first exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, has entered its permanent collection. Anybody who loves Manchester will want to take it home and stare at it.

By Matthew Graham

Photography by Matthew Graham (except original Hiroshige and Valette works)


What: In the Footsteps of a Master

Where: Manchester Art Gallery

When: until June 7, 2015

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