Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro at the Royal Palace of Milan | Exhibition review

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Katsushika Hokusai – Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry, from the series “Small Flowers” (about 1832).

Anyone who has ever wanted to see the likes of the Tōeizan temple in Tokyo, the Cloud Hanging Bridge at Mount Gyōdō in Ashikaga or the Amida Waterfall at the end of the Kiso Road can now do so at the exhibition dedicated to the masters of ukiyo-e – Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro – which will be open to visitors at the Royal Palace of Milan until the end of January 2017.

The exhibition is another significant cultural event that celebrates this year’s 150th anniversary of the first Treaty of Amity and Commerce between Japan and Italy. A selection of more than two-hundred works have been arranged across eleven rooms divided into five main sectionsLandscapes and famous places: Hokusai and Hiroshige; Literary tradition and famous views: Hokusai; ‘Natural’ rivals: Hokusai and Hiroshige; Utamaro: beauty and sensuality and Manga: Hokusai as teacher – which will take visitors on a journey through one of the most artistically inspired and commercially thriving eras in Japanese decorative arts.

The display provides an unprecedented opportunity to marvel at many wonders past and present, real or imagined, created by nature or by mankind, as seen through the eyes of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro who, each with his own sensitivity, used their skills to produce and publicise that imagery which has now become immediately recognisable worldwide. Stemming from the increasingly popular trend according to which people should enjoy life to the fullest because of its ephemerality, the source of inspiration behind the ‘images of the floating world’ crafted during the Edo period soon proved to be so successful that it started to be exploited for trade purposes too. In fact, if today we can admire works like Fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō, One hundred poems by one hundred poets explained by the nurse, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry or Precocious Girl it’s also because they responded to specific requirements of the printmaking market.

A useful audio guide included in the entrance fee will provide visitors with an insight of the historical, social and economic context in which the colour woodblock prints were devised, giving precious information about the techniques that were adopted or developed, explaining how the different artists expressed themselves and what consequences all this had. A short film enables viewers to get a glimpse of the long, painstaking process involving woodblock printing. The exhibition is well organised and is almost faultless, the only flaw being that only one room has actually been devoted to Utamaro’s work. Otherwise, a sure winner.

Verdict: •••••

Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro is on until 29th January 2017 at the Royal Palace of Milan, for further information visit here.

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