Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

Review of Exhibition at  the British Museum (25 May – 13 August 2017)

By Annie Wu and Dieneke Ferguson

The Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave exhibition at the British Museum (supported by Mitsubishi Corporation) focuses on the work he created in the last 30 years before his death at the age of 90. It includes the Great Wave which he painted when he was 70.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), the 19th century master of Japanese prints and paintings, was one of the great artists to live an impressively long life (90). He had an astounding technical command, he trained as a woodblock cutter and an unparalleled visual imagination. He also had a passion for understanding the natural world and was a wonderful observer of everyday life.

Above all he is best known as the creator of the Great Wave the most famous of all Japanese wood-block prints which became a global icon.

Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquisition supported by the Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquisition supported by the Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Great Wave was made at the beginning of the artist’s final years and is part of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji which he made between 1831 and 1833 when he was in his 70s. It shows a storm at sea off Kanagawa near Tokyo and has been widely recreated in popular culture.  The blue in the Great Wave is very strong as Hokusai used a pioneering new chemical pigment called Prussian blue, which was imported in Japan by Dutch merchants.

What makes the Great Wave stand out from other masterpieces is its accessibility. The Great Wave, a woodblock image – was printed in its thousands and shows his technical mastery of the wood block print.

Hokusai was also one of the first Japanese artists to have a working knowledge of European art. Commissioned by the Dutch East India Company in 1822 to produce a series of scenes of everyday life, he responded with a group of inventive paintings made notable by their use of deep European perspective.

Attributed to Hokusai. Boys’ Festival. Ink and colour on old Dutch paper, 1824-1826. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden.

Attributed to Hokusai. Boys’ Festival. Ink and colour on old Dutch paper, 1824-1826. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden.

Boys’Festival (1824-1826) is painted on Dutch paper with ink. The unconventional setting is unique in which we see a rooftop platform for drying laundry with a flapping carp kite in the background and a bold presentation of life for a specific class of women in Japan. When you step up close, you cannot see the gradients and transition of the light to dark shadows in the robes.

His paintings and prints present a journey through mythological worlds, lush landscapes, ghost stories and scenes of everyday life.

Dragon rising above Mt Fuji. Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on silk, 1849. Hokusaikan, Obuse.

Dragon rising above Mt Fuji. Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on silk, 1849. Hokusaikan, Obuse.

During the last 3 decades of his life he would constantly invent new kinds of images – an origin for impressionism and Art Nouveau.

Waves is ink and colour on paulownia wood. The tumultuous spiralling waves appear like a portal to another world. This painting was created in 1845 for a festival cart in the town of Obuse. Hokusai designed the frames with mythical birds and beasts with European winged cherub. It was then completed by his pupil and patron Takai Kōzan, a wealthy and educated merchant.

The little specks of white dots that appear like stardust scattered on the waves add a dimension of fantasy and imagination, which is a very different treatment of the ‘’wave’’ compared to his other pieces.

Attributed to Hokusai, with frame paintings completed by Takai Kōzan (1806–1883). Waves. Two ceiling panels for a festival cart, ink and colour on paulownia wood, 1845. Kanmachi Neighbourhood Council, Obuse, Nagano Prefectural Treasure.

Attributed to Hokusai, with frame paintings completed by Takai Kōzan (1806–1883). Waves. Two ceiling panels for a festival cart, ink and colour on paulownia wood, 1845. Kanmachi Neighbourhood Council, Obuse, Nagano Prefectural Treasure.

Hokusai believed that, as he aged, his talents improved. Hokusai was constantly trying out new techniques with different subject matters from domestic family life to sweeping landscapes. He also changed his name over 30 times throughout his career. He only became Hokusai in 1798. Hokusai means “north studio”, and he chose the name as a tribute to the North Star, the one fixed point in the heavens.

The Japan of Hokusai’s time was very insular and foreign travel from foreigners and Japanese was forbidden.  It’s only a decade after Hokusai’s death in the 1850s that Japan opened up to the wider world and his works found their way around the world, going on to influence several artists, particularly the Impressionists.

In the West, his delineation of space with colour and line, rather than via one-point perspective, would have revolutionary impact. Particularly the showcase of Ukiyo-e prints in the Japanese Pavilion which opened in the Exposition Universelle in 1867 in Paris revealed the depth of Japanese printmaking to French artists for the first time. Claude Monet here acquired 250 Japanese prints, including 23 by Hokusai. Degas’ bathers were also influenced by Hokusai. The Japanese exhibition also elevated the reputation of graphic arts and printmaking.

Hokusai’s prints of Mount Fuji also inspired David Hockney’s the Weather Series, 1973 and in particular, Snow.

 

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