London and Edo: Godzilla meets Jack the Ripper

Are you a cat person or a dog person? Would you rather go to the sea or the mountain? Are you more of a city boy or a country gal? Those questions are not just from any psychology magazine your girlfriend brought back from the hair salon; they are choices that may define you and, incidentally, your environment. Since I haven’t caught up yet on this week’s trendiest kitties and puppies memes, let’s talk city instead.

Before being Superman’s protégé, a metropolis was the “mother city” for Greek colonies, the city that sent out for settlers. Reach out then drag in: quite the same as our cities nowadays, isn’t it?

Previous to fashion weeks and glamorous film premieres, two centuries before The Rolling Stones’ concert at the Tokyo Dome, London and Edo (modern-day Tokyo) were already two of the most dazzling cities on Earth – one on each corner of the globe. With a population of over 1 million each, at a time of brand-new, horizon-broadening industrialization, both cities  were buzzing and humming, roaring and thundering like the tumultuous beehives they were growing to be. And just as you can’t materialize a rabbit out of thin air without making an impression (or at least that was true before the internet), such magic didn’t fail to amaze even the most callous elite. Where the people go, art and words usually follow; thus, change led to the establishment of an artistic community inspired by this blooming of steel and industry. Publishers, writers and painters, and newspapers settled and became the pumping heart and deafening voice of 19th century England and Japan.

Rudolph Ackermann and Augustus Charles Pugin, Billingsgate Market, in “The Microcosm of London”, 1808–1810.
Rudolph Ackermann and Augustus Charles Pugin, Billingsgate Market, in “The Microcosm of London”, 1808–1810.

Harbours, markets, theatres, crowded places of life: London and Edo, though separated by thousands of miles and a few oceans, had more in common to a countryman’s eyes then than they had with the hamlets in their surroundings. With the two countries being islands, the opening of trade with foreign ships hasn’t only been a necessity but also an opportunity and they both gained from this traffic, not only in terms of commerce but also in the arts and culture as both Eastern and Western worlds started to stimulate each other. Elated with the freedom and momentum that this ascension embodied, the 19th century revolution has inspired many of its contemporaries and even keeps intact the fascination to this day.

If Tokyo is now the most populated city in the world, London is only 22nd, after no less than eight Chinese cities. Still, Swinging London keeps its swag and leading position in many domains. As for Tokyo, despite its intimidating gigantism, the capital keeps fascinating millions who can’t figure out how this city can not only never sleep, but never even blink.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibition ”London and Edo: Cities on the Rise” is dedicated to those artists who have documented the birth of two capitals as we know them – Utagawa Hiroshige and Rudolph Ackermann – through prints highlighting the similarities and differences between the 19th century London and Edo. Hurry there before the 17th of July, or if you feel more like modern art go to the associated exhibition, “Megacities Asia”, to see Asian artists sculpt urban reality and dangers.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Night View of Saruwaka-machi, from the series “Famous Places in the Eastern Capital”, 1856.
Utagawa Hiroshige, Night View of Saruwaka-machi, from the series “Famous Places in the Eastern Capital”, 1856.

Capucine Panissal

Cover picture: Utagawa Hiroshige, Complete View of Takanawa, from the series “Famous Places in the Eastern Capital”, 1832-1834.

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