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Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (about 1830-1832). Woodblock color print, 25,9 x 38,5 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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. 

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Utagawa Hiroshige, Suruga. Fuji, from the series A Collection of Pictures of the Provinces (about 1852). silografia policroma; 172x252 mm - Honolulu Museum of Art, dono di James A. Michener, 1991.

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. 

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Kitagawa Utamaro, “Bust Portrait of a Beautiful Woman” (about 1795). Woodblock color print, 36,9 x 24,6 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art. 

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.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji in Clear Weather [or Red Fuji], from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (about 1830-1832). Woodblock color print, 25,5 x 36,8 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Honganji Temple at Asakusa in Edo, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (about 1830-1832). Woodblock color print, 24,7 x 36,5 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, The Cushion Pine at Aoyama in Edo, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (about 1830-1832). Woodblock color print, 26,2 x 38,8 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, The Cushion Pine at Aoyama in Edo, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (about 1830-1832). Woodblock color print, 26,2 x 38,8 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, The Tama River in Musashi Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (about 1830-1832). Woodblock color print, 24,4 x 37,5 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Yoshino Waterfall in Yamato Province where Yoshitsune Washed His Horse, from the series A Tour of Japanese Waterfalls (about 1832-1833). Woodblock color print, 37,9 x 25,9 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Amida Waterfall at the end of the Kiso Road, from the series A Tour of Japanese Waterfalls (about 1832-1833). Woodblock color print, 38,7 x 25,9 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Utagawa Hiroshige, 28. Fukuroi. Famous Kites of Tôtômi Province, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô (about 1848-1849). Woodblock color print, 24,6 x 37,2 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art. 

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Utagawa Hiroshige, The Rôben Waterfall at Ôyama in Sagami Province, from the series Pictures of Famous Places of Kantô (1843). Woodblock color print, 25 x 36,6 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Utagawa Hiroshige, 3. Kawasaki. The Rokugô Ferry, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô (about 1848-1849). Woodblock color print, 25 x 37,2 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Utagawa Hiroshige, 41. Narumi. Shops Selling the Famous Tie-dyed Fabric, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô (about 1848-1849). Woodblock color print, 24,6 x 37,2 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Crowds at the Height of Cherry Blossoms at Yatsuyama, from the series Newly Published Perspective Prints (about 1809-1813). Woodblock color print, 25,8 x 38,2 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Abe no Nakamaro, from the series A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry (about 1833-1834). Woodblock color print, 52,1 x 22,6 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Education of Beginners through the Spirit of Things. Random Sketches by Hokusai (Denshin kaishu. Hokusai manga). Woodblock color print: black ink, light black ink and light vermilion on paper - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Education of Beginners through the Spirit of Things. Random Sketches by Hokusai (Denshin kaishu. Hokusai manga). Woodblock color print: black ink, light black ink and light vermilion on paper - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, “Japanese Bellflower and Dragonfly”, from the series “Large Flowers” (about 1833-1835). Woodblock color print, 23,9 x 37,2 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Utagawa Hiroshige, “Dragonfly and Chrysanthemums”, (about 1837-1838). Woodblock color print, 11 x 16,4 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry, from the series “Small Flowers” (about 1832). Woodblock color print, 25,1 x 18,2 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Utagawa Hiroshige, “Aronia and Bullfinch” (about 1832). Woodblock color print, 36,3 x 17 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Kitagawa Utamaro, Koharu and Jihei, from the series Fashionable Patterns in Utamaro Style (1798-1799). Woodblock color print, 35,5 x 23,8 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Kitagawa Utamaro, Makiginu, from the series Illustration of Courtesans and Eight Views of the Temporary Lodgings (about 1790). Woodblock color print, 31,8 x 22,6 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Kitagawa Utamaro, “Walking through the Snow at Night” (about 1797-1798). Woodblock color print, 38 x 26 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Kitagawa Utamaro, Yoyogiku and Yoyotsuru of Matsubaya, from the series Complete Illustrations of Yoshiwara Parodies of Kabuki (1798). Woodblock color print, 38,6 x 25,1 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Kitagawa Utamaro, The Precociuos Girl (Ochappii), from the seris Variegations of Blooms According to their Speech (1802). Woodblock color print, 39,4 x 26 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.

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Kitagawa Utamaro, “Chinese Beauties at a Banquet” (about 1788-1790). Woodblock color print, 38,2 x 75,8 cm - Honolulu Museum of Art.