It was a perfect outing for a chilly grey January day to see this exhibition in Milan on 12 January. A few lucky BRA members were able to immerse themselves in another world, the world of ukiyo, translated as floating world. Stepping back in history over 300 years to a Japan in isolation, Sakoku, meaning a closed country which lasted from 1603 to the 1860’s, the Tokugawa period.
This art exhibition celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first trade agreement made between Italy and Japan in 1866 as it opened up to the West. 200 Japanese works of art were on display from the Honolulu Museum of Art in Hawaii. Many had been donated by James A. Michener, the famous American novelist of the 1950’s. He passionately collected ukiyoe prints and wrote a book on the subject called Floating World (1954).
Three Masters lived contemporaneously, Utamaro (1753-1806) Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858). All of them produced schools of art. The genre of Japanese art being collectively called yamatoe. Since exposed, western artists in their turn, have been enthralled and influenced until today by these art works. In 1904, Giacomo Puccini created his famous opera, Madam Butterfly, and more recently, in 1962, Andy Warhol’s silk screen diptych, of Marilyn Monroe.
Utamaro painted fine portraits of women of the 1700s with great delicacy in contrasting black and pastel colours. He captured their idiosyncrasies in a slight facial expression or a deliberate body language posture. This subtle individualism set his portraits apart; the ladies were beautiful, mysterious, almost erotic. He influenced Hokusai. This same delicacy of style could be seen in the drawings of nature by Hokusai, of flowers and birds and his Surimono postcard illustrations.
Hokusai and Hiroshige were masters of the techniques of woodblock colour printing. A short film explaining the complex skills involved in producing such prints was shown during the exhibition, highlighting just how special the works of art were to produce and then reproduce. This was the method used by Hokusai for his world iconic painting, Great Wave, which was the centrepiece on display as part of his series of Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, executed 1830-32. Hiroshige was, in his turn, influenced by Hokusai. He also did his version of Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji from 1852-58. The exhibit offered us a comparison between the two artists on the same themes.
Hiroshige’s Capo Lavoro undoubtedly, however, was the historical illustrations of everyday life in 53 stations on The Tokaido Road – exquisite, detailed, vivid colourful drawings. Leaning in for a closer look, you see, brought to life, the myriad of ordinary people going about their lives, reminiscent of our photographs today. The Tokaido Road lay between Kyyoto, the Imperial capital of the Emperor in the West, and Edo the old capital in the East, the real seat of power under the dynasty of the Tokugawan Shoguns. The Shogun ruled this closed world and oversaw the transition from feudal Japan under the Samurai warrior families to a more mercantile world of bureaucracy that we would recognise today. It was the Shogun who required the Samurai and regional feudal lords to make this journey regularly to Edo to pay taxes and homage and thereby they created a new social structure,
The exhibition concluded with more of Hokusai. Some of a series, a mirror of the poets of Japan and China’. These were paintings with often a snatch of poetic calligraphy, a line from a poem in the work, or it illustrated part of a story within a famous literary work. Lines of poetry were painted onto the wall of the exhibit and translated, so enhancing Hokusai’s image perfectly. The effect was to make you want to hear more of the poems. Finally, the last room was devoted to just a taste, of a major body of work compiled by Hokusai towards the end of his life – his books of Manga behind glass, opened at pages showing countless caricatures teaching how to draw different subjects. These were also being projected onto the white walls like a moving kaleidoscope. A genre that is very much alive today in our world of comics and animated cartoons.
We were all so glad to have not missed such an exceptional introduction to Japanese art.