Lesley Downer visits the new Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum.
The British Museum Hokusai exhibition is full of dazzling works yet The Great Wave still leaps out. Its strong, rhythmic, instantly recognisable lines have made it quite simply iconic. The froth of the waves, as Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, is like claws reaching out to grab at the tiny boats in its lea. It’s said that while westerners read paintings from left to right, just as we read writing, so the Japanese, who write from right to left, read paintings in the opposite direction too – though I’m not sure if that makes the wave more or less threatening to the little figures in the boats.
In pre-modern Japan (up to 1868), people believed that we start a whole new lifecycle at the age of 60. The Great Wave is one of the Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji which Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) produced in his early seventies. Katsushika was his family name, Hokusai (‘North Studio’) one of the thirty odd sobriquets he used, taking a new name to mark each stage of his career. Another which he adopted in his 80s was ‘Old Man Crazy to Paint.’
At 73 Hokusai wrote, ‘Until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. … When I reach 80 years I hope to have made increasing progress … so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art and at 110 every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.’ Taking The Great Wave as a starting point, the British Museum’s magnificent exhibition focuses on the work the great artist produced in his last three decades.
Hokusai was always pushing at the boundaries. In his sixties he got a commission from the Dutch East India Company, the only westerners allowed in Japan at the time. This introduced him to the intriguing western technique of perspective. Some of the paintings he did for the Dutch, using it, are on show at the British Museum.
Hokusai was not the first Japanese artist to experiment with perspective but he used it more widely and imaginatively than any before him, merging it with Japanese techniques in which distant objects like mountains are painted at the top of the picture. Instead Hokusai made distant objects smaller, showing Fuji framed by the curve of the Great Wave or rather humorously through a barrelmaker’s hoop. Depicting the mighty mountain as a small cone is the running gag of his Thirty Six Views. He also used the fabulous new paint colour, Prussian blue, which the Dutch had brought over.
The many prints on display at the British Museum celebrate Hokusai’s exuberant brush strokes, flamboyant imagination, his sense of humour and his quirky way of looking at the world. There are wonderful scenes of everyday life – a man in a fishing boat rinsing rice for his morning meal, pilgrims clambering up the rugged slopes of Mount Fuji rather than gazing at its perfect cone from a distance, as it was traditionally portrayed. His birds and animals – such as a spectacularly sharp-eyed cock and demure hen – seem to burst with life. He painted waterfalls, bridges, landscapes, Chinese sages, always with dazzlingly crisp brush strokes and an unerring instinct for design. There’s also a whimsical Sakyamuni on a lotus, holding up a joss stick of moxa which he has just applied to his knee, sore after meditating. Hokusai dashed it off at a party while in his eighties.
Hokusai believed, as many Japanese artists did, that art has a life of its own, a life force. At the British Museum there are paintings and prints of holy men, protective deities and terrifying ghosts, created in order to invoke and release their power through the force of his art. Every day he painted a lion and tossed it out of the window to ward off misfortune. His daughter Oi salvaged one and it’s in the present exhibition.
Making the block for the images to be printed off is a fiendishly delicate craft. There are a couple of films at the British Museum exhibition that show the woodblock carver at work. The skilled carver has to cut around every line and brush stroke which the master has drawn, no matter how fine, and the slightest mistake will ruin the entire block. Some of Hokusai’s prints, like the phenomenally intricate and detailed Landscape with a Hundred Bridges, must have required days of patient work to carve.
It would be a great mistake to think that woodblock prints were the totality of Japanese art. There was a whole canon of art, as complex and varied as we have in the west. Great artists like the fifteenth century Sesshu did glorious ink paintings of landscapes – almost abstracts – on silk scrolls for wealthy patrons who displayed these priceless artefacts in their tokonoma alcoves. There were also hereditary families of artists who painted the exquisite gold screens used in the interiors of temples, castles and wealthy homes.
Hokusai conversely was a kind of Brueghel, depicting working people and their lives, and these were the people who bought his pictures. The Great Wave cost no more than a couple of bowls of noodles. While the rich beautified their alcoves with incredibly expensive hanging scrolls, Hokusai made long narrow woodblock prints which were much cheaper, so that humble folk could have a beautiful image in their alcove too. Hokusai’s prints are art for the people.
In his later years Hokusai lived with his daughter, Oi, who was a fine artist in her own right. She may well have designed some of the prints that are signed with Hokusai’s name. Obviously they’d go for far more if they were signed with the master’s name, not hers. There are works signed by her in the exhibition, mythological scenes and portraits of different types of women seen through a woman’s eyes.
In the end Hokusai didn’t live quite as long as he’d hoped. He died in 1849 at the age of 89. His last words were, ‘If only Heaven will give me another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.’ He left a death poem: ‘Even as a ghost I’ll gaily tread the summer fields.’
His last picture was of a dragon soaring through the clouds above Mount Fuji, as the old man’s spirit soared off into eternity. A mere ten years later, in 1859, Japan opened to the west and in 1860 the British Museum bought its first Hokusai print.
All images © Wikicommons:
- The Great Wave at Kanagawa from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai, 1830 – 1831
- Fine Wind, Clear Morning (Red Fuji) from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji 1830 – 1831
- Pilgrims climbing Mount Fuji from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji 1830 – 1831
- Ushibori in the province of Hitachi from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji 1830 – 1831