MILAN.- Men and animals, the humble witnesses of daily existence, legend and history, mundane rituals and work, landscapes of every kind, the sea, the mountains, the forest, the storms, the warm rains of solitary springtime, a lively breeze whipping around street corners, the north wind in the open countryside and the delicate visages of women. All these things, along with the world of dreams and the world of the marvellous, are the favourite subjects of the three artists par excellence of the "Floating World" (the ukiyo-e): Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro.
And it is the three artists par excellence of the ukiyo-e who are the focus of the exhibition on view through 29 January 2017 at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. The exhibition is a journey through 200 polychrome woodcuts and illustrated books from the Honolulu Museum of Art's prestigious collection into the artistic and human world of the three masters, who have influenced schools and artists in Japan as well as in Europe for centuries, and who still do today, who contrast the ethics of the samurai with the enjoyment of each moment, pleasure in all its forms.
The exhibition is organized by the City of Milan, Palazzo Reale and MondoMostre Skira and curated by Rossella Menegazzo, Professor of Eastern Asian Art History at the University of Milan. The catalogue is published by Skira.
Visitors to the exhibition will enjoy a dual experience: first, feeling the same wonder viewers feel before the freshness and simplicity of the shapes and colours of artists such as Monet, Van Gogh, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, which contributed to changing and revolutionizing the pictorial language of Paris of the late nineteenth century; and second, discovering the unusual technical elements, the skill and the eccentricity of each of the three artists.
Through the 5 sections into which it is organized (Landscapes and famous places: Hokusai and Hiroshige; literary tradition and famous views: Hokusai; Rivals by "nature": Hokusai and Hiroshige; Utamaro: beauty and sensuality; Manga: Hokusai teaches) the exhibition shines light on the market of the time period, which demanded treating specific subjects, places and faces well-known to the audience, and the themes and characters that were in vogue. The demand inevitably led to rivalry, even before the rivalry between the artists themselves rivalries among the publishers who produced the artworks. The best painters, engravers and printers vied to create ever different prints vertical, horizontal, in the form of fans and as books, to satisfy an increasingly demanding and extensive publishing market.
The course of the exhibition, therefore, through the woodcuts of the three masters, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), shows how the same subjects appeared again and again and how publishers were obliged to come up with new devices, such as different sizes and frames. But it also shows how each of the artists distinguished himself with a series on a specific theme, until it became fashionable, and others were forced to attempt the same subject in order to carve out a space in the market for themselves.
This is clear because Hokusai's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (about 1830-32) were followed, nearly twenty years later, by Hiroshige's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1852-58), which include similar views that in some way recall the master Hokusai (for example the "Great Wave" with a similar composition, though less violent and dramatic).
In the same way, it can be understood why Hiroshige's most popular series, the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, initially published in 1833-34, was repeatedly presented by the same author through different publishers and in different formats or even in collaboration with other artists, and how the subject was also treated by Hokusai in a series of surimono (greeting cards) and woodcuts between 1804 and 1811.
Perspectives of bridges, waterfalls, districts in Edo, in Kyoto and in the most distant provinces, alongside faces, the elegance of kimonos and the sensuality of the most beautiful women of the time, paint a picture of the society, and guide the viewer, then as now, into the places and locations frequented by the three masters and their contemporaries; they testify that man is always an active and integrated part of nature, even when the subjects harken back to the literary, poetic and theatrical tradition. In technical terms, they show the growing confidence of the ukiyo-e masters with methods of depiction that actually originated in the West and were integrated gradually into the pictures of the Floating World, but moreover, in social and political terms, they mark the creation of a new, more homogenous national cultural identity.
And of course, it was these images, especially Hiroshige's views of Japan, Hokusai's fifteen volumes of Manga and the faces of Utamaro's beauties, that would become an aesthetic point of reference for all later artists: the Japanese and Western photographers who established themselves in Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century took inspiration from the colours, compositions and subjects of ukiyo-e for the pictures they offered to foreigners, so that such images became affirmed as "the Image of Japan" overseas, which shook up and won over the European world of art, especially in Paris of the late nineteenth century, transforming and revolutionizing the Impressionists' methods of depiction.
The fascination continues to this day; this floating art has given rise to other visual art forms, from manga to anime, from tattoos to more commercial gadgets, but is also seen in the way the works of Japanese and foreign contemporary artists continue to recall the themes and features of ukiyo-e prints.