Hiroshige. Master of Nature

For the first time in Italy, 200 works by one of the greatest Japanese artists of all time will be on show. From 17 March in the capital, at the Museo Fondazione Roma (formerly Museo del Corso).
Utagawa Hiroshige


The Fondazione Roma, chaired by Professor Emmanuele Francesco Maria Emanuele, is set to host the exhibition Hiroshige. Master of Nature, from 17 March to 7 June in its exhibition space, the Museo Fondazione Roma (formerly Museo del Corso)

For the first time in Italy, the exhibition will be presenting 200 works by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), one of the greatest Japanese artists of all time, who significantly influenced painting in Europe, particularly Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. Imitated by numerous 19th century artists, his most famous emulator was Vincent Van Gogh, who was deeply inspired by his technique and subject matter, and faithfully reproduced a number of his works in some very famous paintings.

Hosted by the Fondazione Roma and produced in collaboration with Arthemisia, the exhibition is curated by Gian Carlo Calza, with technical coordination by The International Hokusai Research Centre. It represents a unique opportunity to get to know an artist whose outstanding talent for contemplating and conveying a harmonious vision of nature, even in the midst of a blizzard, or at the centre of a whirlpool, still channels an intense capacity for religious absorption, bringing human sentiments in tune with the pulse of the cosmos, connecting the infinitely small with the boundlessly immense.

As Foundation Chairman Emanuele explains: “After the exhibition ‘Capolavori dalla Città Proibita. Qianlong e la sua corte’ (Masterpieces from the Forbidden City. Qianlong and his Court) in 2008, the Fondazione Roma once more looks to the Orient, with an exhibition dedicated to a painter considered to be one of the greatest exponents of ‘Ukiyo-e’ art (‘pictures of a floating world). From the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the 19th century this genre expressed the tastes and style of the proto-modern Japanese society which was forming in the big cities: the merchant and trading classes, and the bourgeoisie in general. For this social strata Hiroshige was the undisputed master of landscape, and, according to some, even greater than Hokusai, due to his unique religious contemplation of nature, reflecting a subtle Shintoist inspiration. The exhibition is another part of the intercultural initiative that the Fondazione Roma is engaged in through its museum, which celebrates its first ten years in 2009. In these ten years the Foundation has staged innovative exhibitions and events which have made a significant contribution to the cultural scene in Rome”.

The works come from the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and will subsequently be exhibited at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, from 1 July to 10 September 2009.

Hiroshige’s work is predominantly in the form of coloured prints, which were the main medium of the ‘art of the floating world’, both on single sheets and in books of illustrations, of which he is thought to have produced more than 4000, as well as the images for 120 books. This was an art for direct, private consumption, not for official display: in the tranquillity of a domestic setting, his creativity and skill conveyed the grandeur of gorges and rivers running between towering mountains, of whirlpools and currents in sea straits, and entire peninsulas bathed in moonlight, as we see in the three famous triptychs on show in the exhibition, created shortly before Hiroshige’s death in Edo in 1858 during a cholera epidemic.

Divided into five sections, the exhibition “Hiroshige. Master of Nature”, staged by the Fondazione Roma Museo, presents works from the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which possesses probably the largest collection of prints by Hiroshige in the West, boasting over 3,000 images, mostly from the legacy of James Michener, the famous novelist who wrote Sayonara and Hawaii. The exhibition also features photos from the JCII Foundation in Tokyo, Japan’s most important museum of photographic apparatus, and one of the country’s chief photography museums.

The first section, “The World of Nature”, contains prints which are masterpieces in the representation of natural elements: a flock of wild geese in flight against the background of a full moon, or a small shoal of salmonids, ayu, swimming against the current in a stream of white and sky blue, or a waterfall gushing over a rock jutting out above a deep chasm, with an autumn red maple. The second section, “Postcards from the Provinces”, features works depicting Japanese beauty spots famed for striking natural elements (a breathtaking waterfall, unusually-shaped rocks, a twisted tree on a cliff top) or spectacular views (deep sea gorges, a fragile bridge suspended above a precipice), their mythological or literary connotations, or as popular meeting places. The third section, entitled “The Road to Kyoto”, is dedicated to the two great thoroughfares that connected the imperial capital of Kyoto to the administrative capital of Edo (Tokyo), one along the coast (Tōkaidō), and one inland (Kisokaidō). This section contains the work The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, universally considered to be the artist’s absolute masterpiece. He created this work around 1834, shortly after a trip there. The fourth section, “In the Heart of Tokyo”, features views of Edo, the so-called “Western capital” of Japan – now Tokyo – which was home to the shogun, the military and political head of Japan. Hiroshige depicted over a hundred popular spots in the city, from the “nightless city” of Yoshiwara, with its elegant bordellos, to theatreland in the Saruwachō district, and Nihonbashi, the point from which Japanese people measure all distances and journeys.

There is a separate section entitled “Hiroshige’s Landscapes in Early Photography”, curated by Rossella Menegazzo, which presents photographs and postcards of landscapes and famous places that bear witness to the influence Hiroshige had on the new medium and the vision of the first photographers: the visual angle of the shots, the choice of places made famous by the artist’s prints, and his “take” on nature, all live on in the new images. This creates an impression of almost natural continuity between the painterly ukiyo-e tradition, and the modern technology of photography.

Hiroshige was born in Edo (Tokyo) into the family of a Samurai fire service officer. In 1797, when he was 15, he lost both of his parents, and inherited his father’s title. This position and the pay attached to it made him relatively independent of the fortunes of his artistic talents, but also held back his artistic development to some extent. He studied under Utagawa Toyohiro (1763?-1828), acquiring his teacher’s passion for landscapes, but he only became successful after the death of his mentor, when he developed his own, completely different style.
Hiroshige’s oeuvre spans various genres, including prints of actors, warriors and courtesans, but above all images of nature, with prints of flowers, birds and fish, and in the 1830s, landscapes, where he introduced a new style which brought him immediate fame and put him into Hokusai’s league. The work The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō was a resounding success and led to the production of many other series of landscapes. In 1837 he began work on the Sixty-Nine 2,822 views of the Kisokaidō, already initiated by Eisen, whom he later took over from completely, creating 47 of the 71 images. In the 1830s he became the most popular landscape painter, and he worked on many other series, from the Famous Views of Kyoto, of 1834, to the Hundred Famous Views of Edo, from 1856 to 1858. From 1856 to 1858 he worked on three triptychs dedicated to the traditional theme of the three whites – snow, the moon and blossom: Mountains and Rivers along the Kisokaidō, Nocturnal View of the Eight Famous Places of Kanazawa, and Landscape of the Gorges of Awa.

Museo del Corso