Prints from three of the greatest Japanese artists, from 18th to 20th century, are on show in Italy
Divided into four sections, the exhibition features a selection of over 100 woodblock prints providing a tour of Japan’s most evocative places, both real and imaginary, while documenting the art and culture of a country that has experienced a profound political, social, cultural, urban and artistic transformation, under the influence of the West in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, following the 1868 Meiji Restoration.
The works of the two great masters of landscape of the Floating World, ukiyo-e of the 19th century, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), are exhibited together with modern ‘new prints’ (shin hanga) of Kawase Hasui (1883-1957), who carried on the tradition of the masters of the past and was given the accolade of Living National Treasure.
Shin hanga differed from the contemporary sosaku hanga movement, ‘creative prints’, as they were made in limited number with a process completely under the artist’s control, who designed, carved and printed the works. In this sense, Hasui inherited the process of ukiyo-e printmaking from the Edo period, but evolved the style and the subject matter. He reexamined the concept landscapes of famous sites that were permeated with literary significance (meisho) by recreating them , but in his own style, just as Hokusai and Hiroshige had done. Hasui used the landscape drawn from real life following Western techniques. He used the pure colours of Hokusai and Hiroshige’s polychrome prints, softened with the bokashi technique applied by the printer on a single colour. However, Hasui was able to create new tones by superimposing colours softened by bokashi and also printing colours starting from the lightest to the darkest, in order to express a variety of dark tones: a technique through which he was able to more effectively represent light (natural and artificial). Hasui was also a master of atmosphere, creating a certain moment through shadows and reflections, changing time from day to night, or a cloudy moon to a brilliant one, allowing the more attentive viewer to perceive silent silhouettes of individuals, or animals, walking in the dark.
Hokusai on his famous Great Wave print used less than 10 colours: he was ingenious in the use of lines and in the construction of an effective composition similarly to a contemporary commercial poster, moreover, he exploited the newly imported brilliant Prussian blue (Berurin ai) to capture and surprise the public. Hiroshige, on the other hand, used up to 20 colours in his most elaborate views: his red bokashi skies, for example, are very peculiar. Here, he used simplified lines to depict figures and landscapes to transmit the calm and almost ‘religious’ respect of and taste for nature that also attracted, most part of 19th century, European artists. Hasui on his part, easily managed to use 30 colours in some of his prints, such as the Kude Beach in Wakasa Province (1920), a ‘bird’s-eye view’ composition that uses a range of light reflected on the sea that recalls the paintings of Monet.
All the series by the three masters touch the subject of the Eastern Capital – Edo from 1603 until 1868, and Tokyo from the Meiji Restoration on. The first section, From Edo to Tokyo: Views of the Eastern Capital is dedicated to the famous places (meisho) of the capital. Situated on the wild Musashi plains, from where Mount Fuji could be seen in the distance, Edo, a small fisherman village, became the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 and remained the seat of power more than 250 years.
Travelling along the Roads of Japan continues the comparison between the three masters by presenting views from the provinces: these series, rather like souvenir images, show the famous places along the roads that connected Edo to the imperial capital of Kyoto: the Tokaido along the eastern coast and the Kisokaido, a more inland road that crossed the mountains. The first, being flatter and easier to traverse, was used more by local samurai travelling to Edo with their entourage, as called for by the policy of alternate residence, sankinkotai, but also by pilgrims on their way to Mount Fuji and the temples. A Hokusai’s bird’s-eye view map shows their route, looking almost like a game that highlights the presence of the sacred Mount Fuji; others, among the most important polychrome woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige, depict the 53 stations along the Tokaido and the 69 stations along the Kisokaido. Still others depict attractions of more distant, less well-known, provinces associated with particular seasons. Hasui captured these and other places in prints drawn ‘from life’ with a more Western-style realism; he adopted a novel panoramic format, nagaban, vertical or horizontal, in which he evoked, like Hiroshige, the atmosphere and diversity of sites, seasons, and weather, especially the whiteness of snow and the seasonal rains that resemble, in many cases, scenes from the animated world of Hayao Miyazaki.
The imaginary landscapes and their profound link with poetry and literature are left to Hokusai’s two series dedicated to Chinese and Japanese classical poets, idealised or freely interpreted with combinations of verses from ancient poems. The series of colour prints One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets Explained by the Nurse (of which Hokusai only completed 27), is based on an ancient anthology of Japanese poetry. True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poets, on the other hand, comprises 10 stunning vertical prints similar to scroll paintings, portraying the places cited in the poets’ verses, or their places of origin. Produced for the vast print market in the 1830s, these two series were among Hokusai’s last creations before he retired to dedicate himself exclusively to painting and they represent the essence of landscape and its meaning in the 19th-century’s popular meisho genre. In the meisho prints, there are a huge number dedicated to the sacred Mount Fuji, Japan’s famous site, par excellence. In addition to being a Shinto symbol of the divine, the mountain also developed over the years into a symbol of national unity to which contributes the same ukiyo-e prints which diffused the knowledge of the territory in the distant provinces. Every Japanese man and woman in the Edo era aspired to take the pilgrimage to Mount Fuji at least once in their lives and this is demonstrated by the many series dedicated to this place. Between 1830 and 1832, Hokusai produced his famous series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, to which 10 more prints were added after its resounding success attributable to its graphic impact and the beauty of its Prussian blue. The series includes the two works that have become international icons, The Great Wave off Kanagawa and South Wind, Clear Sky (known as Red Fuji), but it offers as main subject human being engaged in everyday life and activities described with vivid details. More than 20 years later, in 1856, Hiroshige produced his own Thirty-Six Views of Fuji in a more modern, Westernised style, certainly influenced by the optical innovations spreading throughout Japan in the 1850s. Not only had photography just entered Japan with the opening of the ports in 1854, but he was also aware of the success of the Hokusai’s series, which brought Hiroshige to search for new ways to go over the old model, sometimes evoking it, sometimes exaggerating small details, as seen in a photographic close-up, as well as choosing a vertical format to intensify the effect of the perspective.
With Hasui’s print on Mount Fuji made in 1930 ‘from real life’, the visitor is introduced to the modern and Westernised concept of landscape, even if at the same time it confirms the enduring fascination of this mountain to which modern artists of both Western and Japanese styles, Yoga and Nihonga, would also dedicate at least one work.
Three landscape masters through which works we can both see the spring of Japonisme that pervaded Europe in the 19th century alongside the counter part of Europeanism trend, who fascinated Japan at the end of that same 19th and beginning of 20th centuries.
Kokusai, Hiroshige, Hasui, until 16 February, at the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin, Italy, pinacoteca-agnelli.it