Geishas, samurai and the civilization of pleasure.
Turin, Società Promotrice delle Belle Arti
23 February – 25 June 2023

This is not yet another exhibition of celebrated Japanese prints, it is THE exhibition on the art of ukiyo-e. Conceived by Francesco Paolo Campione, Director of the Museo delle Culture in Lugano, and organized by Skira publications, it presents an extraordinary selection of works, some of them unpublished, through an articulated and compelling exhibition space. The nine sections it is divided into deal with the most important themes of what was called “the floating world” in Japan, owing to its propension -as Francesco Paolo Campione writes in his Introduction to the catalog- “to indicate a society of pleasure dominated by an existential inclination for sensuality and eroticism”.

The art of Japanese woodblock prints is suspended between dream and reality, often filtered by enchanted atmospheres basically meant to suscitate emotions which society tends to hide if not positively suppress. It is a dimension hinting at the pleasures of life enjoyed outside the domestic walls: worldly pleasures and society life which allow breaking social barriers, even just for a few hours, for all men in tearooms, inns, public baths and brothels are quite similar, if not nearly identical. However, it is necessary to contextualize this art form into the complexity of a rapidly changing society, where new middle classes look for an identity whilst remaining within the bounds of tradition.

Among its themes we find the world of nature: real and evocative landscapes, images to be carefully looked at in order to appreciate their details, which are never casual because they indirectly refer to a reality transcending appearances and suggesting a descriptive, symbolic and intimistic interpretation. The analysis of some of these works opens up a world of details and symbols that is a true pleasure for the soul and the mind. Another highly popular subject is the world of theater, with portraits of the actors and masks of Kabuki theater inspiring strong emotions as well as laughter in the most genuine popular tradition.

Fundamental among the themes of ukiyo-e is the female universe described by the great Master Utamaro with a sublime technique of line and color, with its refined elegance but also with psychological introspection. The women of the “floating world”, often geishas and courtisans, suggest a female ideal uniting beauty, rituality, and sensuousness. In this new “reality of pleasure” an obvious fundamental theme is eroticism, explored by the various artists with sometimes contrasting results ranging from hyperrealistic to parodistic and humorous; but we can also see the emergence of a depiction of pleasure aimed at sublimating the carnal through a refinement of gestures and glances.

History, however, the true one made of rules imposed by imperial power and its executives, cannot allow that this “light” albeit not superficial vision of joie de vivre corrupts traditional values. Therefore, around the mid-19th century some of ukiyo-e’s typical themes are replaced by imperial edict with others considered more edifying and instructive: exquisite landscapes, but also warriors, wrestlers, heroes, all reinforcing and internalizing the martial sense of life. After the second half of the 19th century Japan will be ready for modernity, and the magical atmosphere of the “floating world” will gradually vanish.

After such an intense and articulated exhibition one would expect to contentedly end his or her visit sated with beauty, but there is a surprise: past a black curtain the visitor finds himself in a large room whose walls are flooded by a fantastic video merging Hokusai’s waves, mount Fuji, and a stormy ocean: a powerful, breathtaking film clip running on a loop, a touch of contemporaneity showing the classical Japanese icons between past and present.

The catalog (366 pages, Edizioni Skira), curated by Francesco Paolo Campione and by the best Italian scholars in the field, is an essential tool for understanding this world from any viewpoint, be it historical, social, cultural or artistic.

Enjoy your visit.

© Federico Gualandi

Renzo Freschi
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