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Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

With its stupendous behemoth of blue towering over the dwarfed Mount Fuji (and the tiny boats in its path) The Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the most recognisable and loved images in Japanese art. Created by one of the most technically proficient artists in history; it has inspired generations of people and has been parodied countless times – to top it off, it is also one of the first artworks to be translated into emoji.

However, the Great Wave is only one piece of a story that spanned the best part of eight decades. Its creator, Katsushika Hokusai had an extensive and fascinating career, long before and long after the Wave, producing nearly three thousand woodblock prints, illustrating several books and frequently painting throughout his life. In a once in a generation opportunity, the British Museum has brought together a unique showing of Hokusai's work, drawn from its holdings and several significant loans to tell the story of the self-styled “old man crazy to paint”.

A visitor to the exhibition will need a lot of time and patience to enjoy this show thoroughly; due to the number of people in the gallery and waiting to get close to the cases. It has already attracted over 100,000 visitors during its run, and has even sold out for its remaining few weeks; a fact that testifies to the universal popularity of Hokusai’s work. Opportunities to experience his prints and paintings in the UK are few and far between, and the sheer beauty of them makes any amount of queueing worthwhile for the chance of a close encounter.

The show focuses mostly on his late work but opens with a stunning early scroll painting of the immortal Yuzhi and her loyal white dragon. Painted in his late thirties; it is a powerful, accomplished and refined image of a subject that would have appeal to the traditional taste for Classical China in the art of the time.

Hokusai wasn’t one to stick with tradition though; experimenting with new styles and ideas throughout his life; even being kicked out of his master's studio for dabbling with outside techniques. However, by this point he had achieved an exceptional reputation as an artist; able to earn his keep through private commissions and book illustrations – to the point where he was able to choose which writers he would work with, rather than the conventional approach of the author choosing the artist.

One of the most popular books he worked on, Strange Tales of the Bow Moon can be seen in the exhibition – where we can see the three men from Onoshima struggling with all their might to try and draw the mighty bow of the heroic Minamoto no Tametomo.

Warrior Hero Tametomo, from Strange Tales of the Bow Moon, 1807. Image British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Alongside this illustration is a later depiction of the scene to celebrate the success of the Strange Tales. As well as the glint from the gold leaf mixed with the colour, the viewer gets a real sense of depth in this painting image, through the sophisticated layering of colour.
Throughout his life, Hokusai maintained that his work would improve as he aged. From his sixties onwards, he made a pivotal leap forward which involved mixing European genre styles with a distinctly Japanese twist. A commission from the Dutch East India Company saw him boldly venture into the use of perspective, 3-D modelling and the use of colour toning to suggest the direction of light. A radical departure from what he had done before, these paintings revolutionised his art, paving the way for his later revolutionary and most memorable creations.

New Year Scene, 1824-1826. National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden

As you would expect, the Thirty Six Views act as the centre point of the display. Here is a major pinch point as people lingered over these stunning prints, especially the British Museum's version of the Great Wave, one of the finest surviving versions in the world. The print is an early impression; so does not suffer from the degrading quality as the block wore down. As well as this it has also been well preserved against light exposure, so it is as close as you can get to the print as it would have looked the day it was made in 1831.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa 'The Great Wave', 1831. Image British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Hokusai had experimented with depicting waves throughout his thirties and forties (with early examples included in the exhibition), but they seem frozen and unnatural in comparison. The culmination of 25 years of experience rises out of the ocean, clawing its way forward over the tiny boats beneath - a dramatic and tense contrast to the serene, eternal mountain in the distance, framed within its trough.
What I found most delightful though is the sheer intensity of the Prussian blue; which Hokusai used to great effect in the thirty-six views and his later print work. His monochromatic impressions were particularly impressive, where he produces a full range of depth and tone with a single colour.

Kajikawaza, Kai province, 1831. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain).

There are, of course, many prints, paintings and drawings I could mention from the exhibition, but this post would soon become far too long. Delicate flower pieces, terrifying ghosts and wildlife that jumps off the page (and the many, many volumes of his Manga), every work exhibits the mastery of Hokusai’s practise. A work that I had not come across before, a scroll painting of the protector Shōki is another masterpiece in monotone; which brings the bravura and power of the guardian spirit into our world. Specially commissioned to protect the owner from an outbreak of smallpox, he commands the attention of the entire room where he hangs. If ever you needed an artwork to watch your back, I’d pick this one.
Shōki painted in red, 1846. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain)
Hokusai did not slow as he reached his advanced years and his final decade was the point where he felt he was at last beginning to make progress with his art.
A beautiful letter from the 83-year-old Hokusai to a publisher excuses some earlier drawings it accompanied, explaining that they were “from a time when he had not fully matured as an artist” (the works were from his early forties). The energetic self-portrait he has included on this letter is a real insight into how he saw himself at this stage. Although small and wrinkled, he is enthusiastically pointing towards something off the page; the folds in the kimono turn him into a coiled bundle of energy, ready to spring into creativity. With a hundred and sixteen surviving paintings dated to his final decade, the desire and dedication to keep creating never faded.

Self Portrait, aged eighty-three, 1842. National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden

A pair of ducks in flowing water, painted when he was 88 show his masterful technique. Thousands of small, accented brush strokes of different colours are applied on top of each other in an near random, non-uniform feathering and texture. This meticulous and thorough application of layered washes and brushstrokes would have taken time and care but combined with an incredible sense of expression, it turns the work from a painting of swimming ducks to ducks swimming on a page.

Ducks in flowing water (detail), 1847. Image British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This character is most evident in the final paintings in the gallery – first, a double scroll of a tiger and a dragon. Bursting out of a tornado into the storm cloud, I think this dragon is Hokusai’s masterpiece (nothing against the tiger, which is also stunning).
The expression in the eyes of the creature is far more aware and accessible to the viewer than what you see in many portraits of actual humans. Astoundingly, the painting is likely to have been painted in reverse, the ink applied from the lightest grey tones through to the black, leaving the exposed paper to act as the highlight, not just on the head and the claws, but on every single scale.

Dragon in Rain Clouds (detail), 1849. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris

The last work seen is a poignant and fitting conclusion to both Hokusai's work and the exhibition itself. In a winter landscape, with Mount Fuji covered in snow, a dragon rises into the heavens, the cloud tracing its path out of the scene. The painting has been interpreted as showing Hokusai’s desire to achieve a higher state of divine wonder in his spirit and his art; now he had reached this great milestone of nine decades of life. Even at this time life, he sought to improve on what he had already done. He was reputed to ask for another ten or five years so he could become a real painter.

Alas, the dragon rising to the heavens can also symbolise a farewell or an epitaph in telling his story, as he died in the fourth month of his 90th year. During his life, he had continually innovated, reinvented and mastered techniques and style that would have a lasting effect on art across the world. Many of the masterpieces of modern art owe a debt to Hokusai; European artists such as Manet, Gauguin and Van Gogh take inspiration from his work and lessons from Hokusai even permeated into the story of Scottish art via the Glasgow Boys.

The tragedy of this success is that it is not duly acknowledged. Hokusai and many other Japanese artists were quickly disregarded as individuals, bundled under the umbrella term "Japonisme" when their works reached Europe. Combined with the global iconic status of the Great Wave, he has been stereotyped, much like Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa, or Grant Wood and American Gothic. With any luck, this latest show will open the eyes of UK visitors to the sheer breadth and beauty of all of Hokusai’s work; refocusing the view beyond his most iconic work.

The exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave runs at the British Museum until August 13th, then transfers to Osaka. The accompanying publication, including a full exhibition catalogue is £35.00