I had been waiting for them for a while and finally they’re here in Bologna. The floating kimonos, the snowy landscapes, the carps, the birds, the cherry blossoms and of course the waves, those iconic “dragon claw waves” as they’re called, that are so strongly linked to a certain imagery of Japanese painting during its age d’or, aka Ukyoe.
For those of you who happen to read this blog, I already mentioned Ukyoe some months ago, in the occasion of another exhibition at Palazzo Albergati that grouped a number of artists and expressions of the Japanese art of “Floating world”. This latest exhibit is both bigger and more focused, with a restricted period (betwen the ’30s and the 50s of the nineteenth century) of this two centuries long movement but a very large body of work.
The peculiarity of this exhibition’s view of Ukyoe isn’t as much the historical fragment of time it decides to focus on as it is the “just two” artists it hosts: two massive, essential masters, Hiroshige and Hokusai, with a wide range of their respective works – mostly polychrome silographies – especially all those depicting landscapes and the natural world, from waterfalls to bridges, from rain to snow, culminating in that uber-famous wave that became Hokusai’s signature work and that some time later was also panted by Hiroshige, twenty years younger than Hokusai. The two waves are placed in the central section of the itinerary, one next to the other, one horizontal and the other vertical, the first more famous than the latter and both testifying of that very Japanese love for nature and respect for its destructive power.
«Ukyoe means floating world, as everyone knows – Japanese general consul for Italy Makoto Tominaga said at the exhibit’s presentation – but it can also mean melancholic world». The produce of an isolated, delicate country, subject to earthquakes and tsunamis, aware of its intrinsic fragility and of the passing of time, determined to capture and reproduce the many ephemeral beauties of life.
However, Ukyoe wans’t just the response to a philosophical approach to the transient nature of things. It was also the byproduct of a new society where a new, richer bourgeoisie was determinedly replacing the samurais and celebrating its own new status, while also defying the older order’s censorship and honoring the pleasures of mundane life. However we can only see a very small portion of this latter side of Ukyoe (with the remarkable absence of my beloved shugas), as this rich collection coming from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts choses to focus its attention on landscape painting.
And rich it is indeed, with masterpieces from the famous Hokusai’s Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji and Hiroshige’s Fifty-three post stations of the Tōkaidō, or Hōeidō Tōkaidō from the name of the publisher who originally launched Hiroshige’s career.
The 250 works of this exhibit, curated by Rossella Menegazzo with the collaboration of Sarah E. Thompson, are divided into 6 thematic sections, with the first unfolding part of Hokusai’s production and the remaining five devoted to various aspects of Hiroshige’s: the images of travelling over Tokaido (the route connecting Kyoto with the ancient capital Edo) and the mountain path of Kisokaido; the harmonous compositions of flowers, birds and fish; the lesser known parodistic works, where Hiroshige used to mock classical characters or stories; views of “far away places”; views from the Oriental Capital, aka Edo.
It is inevitable, for an enthusiastic non expert such as myself, not to notice the many anticipations of the contemporary, commercial Japanese production – aka animes and manga – yet to be invented and at the same time so indebted to the neatness and stylization of these prints from the XIXth century. And it was interesting to learn about the influences that European art and technology had on the latest Ukyoe’s production, especially that from Hiroshige, from pre-photographic aesthetics to new colours.
This is one of those exhibitions you can hardly absorb with just one single view, both because of a certain, virtuous monotony that is intrinsic in the genre of series, and for the large number of works on display. Luckily, you have time up to March 2019 to give yourself the gift of multiple views.
HOKUSAI. HIROSHIGE. BEYOND THE WAVE
Museo Civico Archeologico
Via dell’Archiginnasio 2 – Bologna
Tel. 051 2757211