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Luis Miguel Goitizolo

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Hokusai: the Great Wave that swept the world
9/27/2017 11:47:20 PM

Hokusai: the Great Wave that swept the world

He called himself Old Man Crazy To Paint and made his best work in his 70s. As his dragons, deities, poets and wrestlers go on show, we look at the obsessions of the poster-boy for Japanese art

It was a good boast but not quite true – he had begun his manga, woodblock print books of sketches that were wildly popular, in his 50s. They stretched to 15 volumes (the last three published posthumously), and covered every subject imaginable: real and imaginary figures and animals, plants and natural scenes, landscapes and seascapes, dragons, poets and deities combined together in a way that defies all attempts to weave a story around them. Leafing through the manga in the original or a facsimile is a mind-expanding experience, one that should be prescribed for all aspiring artists. In their observation and invention they have been compared to Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and rightly so for the thrilling panorama they provide both of the world and of Hokusai’s imagination.

If the manga made Hokusai’s name, the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (there are in fact 46 prints in the series) ensured his fame. Hokusai’s obsession with Mount Fuji was part of his hankering after artistic immortality – in Buddhist and Daoist tradition, Fuji was thought to hold the secret of immortality, as one popular interpretation of its names suggests: “Fu-shi” (“not death”). I saw the mountain for the first time last year, from the window of the Shinkansen bullet train. You quickly understand how it dominates the landscape, as the train curves around, revealing it over woodlands and cities, behind buildings, over the plains – and why Hokusai returned to it so often, like a pivot for his restless imagination.

Fuji appears in Thirty-Six Views in many different guises, sometimes centre-stage, elsewhere as background detail. The first five in the series were printed entirely in shades of blue (a combination of traditional indigo and Prussian blue, a recently invented chemical pigment), suggesting views of the mountain at dawn, seen now from a beach, now from a neighbouring island, now as passenger boats and cargo vessels head out over Edo bay.

Hokusai gradually introduced colour into the series, delicate pinks and darker shadows, to show the illumination of the world as the sun creeps up over the horizon. The print Ejiri, Suruga Province shows early morning on a desolate patch of the Tōkaidō highway, Mount Fuji drawn with a single line, while in the foreground a group of travellers are struck by a gust of wind that sends hats and papers flying in the air. It is one of my favourite of the Thirty-Six Views. In Japan the best-loved print is Clear Day with a Southern Breeze. Included in the British Museum exhibition, an early impression of this print shows the delicate atmospheric effects of sunrise, lost in later printings probably made without Hokusai’s direct supervision.

Early impressions of the Great Wave, or Under the Wave off Kanagawa, are just as subtle in their colouring: atmospheric pink and grey in the sky, deep Prussian blue in the folds of the sea. Fishing skiffs are lost in the waves, while the great wall of water, with its finger-like tendrils, threatens to engulf both them and the tiny Mount Fuji in the distance. That the Great Wave became the best known print in the west was in large part due to Hokusai’s formative experience of European art.

Prints from early in his career show him attempting, rather awkwardly, to apply the lesson of mathematical perspective, learnt from European prints brought into Japan by Dutch traders. By the time of Under the Wave, the sense of deep space was far more subtle. The rigid converging lines of European perspective drawing become the gently sloping sides of the sacred mountain. In all other ways it could not have been further from anything being made in Europe at the time.

I would love to see an impression of Hokusai’s delicately coloured print hung next to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, painted just over a decade previously, in which a similar large wave is about to crash down on frail humanity. The contrast, and extreme modernity of Hokusai’s print, was certainly on the mind of those post-impressionist painters who so admired his work. You can still see prints by Hokusai, alongside Utamaro and Hiroshige, lining Monet’s dining room at Giverny; Rodin and Van Gogh were also enthusiastic collectors.

Hokusai signed his Thirty-Six Views with the name Iitsu, adding for clarification that he was “the former Hokusai”. It was common in Japan, as in China, for artists to adopt different names throughout their careers, marking different stages of life, and perhaps also as a way of refreshing the brand. He adopted the name Hokusai (“North Studio”) in his late 40s, when he became an independent artist, leaving his teaching job and striking out on his own.

By the time he created his second great tribute to Mount Fuji, three volumes comprising One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (in fact there were 102 views) he was using the artist names Gakyō rōjin (“Old Man Crazy to Paint”), and Manji (“Ten Thousand Things”, or “Everything”). There is indeed a spirit of crazy comprehensiveness to One Hundred Views, all the mad invention and curiosity of the manga combined with the exquisite technique of the Thirty-Six Views. Timothy Clark, the curator of the British Museum exhibition, describes One Hundred Views as “one of the greatest illustrated books” ever printed, and it is difficult to disagree. The drawings are brilliantly conceived, and the prints beautifully made, the woodblock carvers reproducing Hokusai’s line so accurately that we think we are looking at the drawings themselves, rather than carved and printed copies.

More here

How did Hokusai create the Great Wave? Find out in our special documentary which looks at the painstaking work required to create traditional Japanese prints.

Catch this exclusive documentary in cinemas in Italy on 25, 26 & 27 September https://goo.gl/ZLNUFb
Plus look out for screenings in Spain and Australia in October and November: http://ow.ly/es2130f67Vn


This post dedicated to Roger Macdivitt


"Choose a job you love and you will not have to work a day in your life" (Confucius)

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Myrna Ferguson

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RE: Hokusai: the Great Wave that swept the world
9/30/2017 3:08:38 AM
Hi Miguel,

This site is so interesting and different. I have come back to it several times. I feel sure Roger will love it.

Myrna
LOVE IS THE ANSWER
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