Katsushika Hokusai bound a restless wave within the limits of a woodblock measuring 25.8 cms by 37.9 cms. The print, from this woodblock, is known as ‘The Great Wave’ and is one of a series entitled ’36 Views of Mt Fuji’. The publisher, Nishmuraya ,commissioned Hokusai to create this work. Thousands of impressions of each design were issued. Prints were cheap and much in demand. ‘The Great Wave’ became an icon and could be the most famous work in Japanese art.
Hokusai and his art are the subjects of an informative Exhibition currently running at the British Museum.
Hokusai was born in 1760 in Japan, which was called Edo at that time. He was an unusual character who moved house 90 times in 93 years! In common with other artist,. he sometimes changed his name and used Gakyo Rojin, which means ‘Old Man Crazy to Paint’. He set himself up as a woodblock Printer, excelling in brushwork and understanding the human body and the natural world. There was a Japanese tradition of ‘Ukiyo-e’ which consisted of images of entertainers, actors and prostitutes. He brought a new look to this art form. His life was not easy;he suffered a stroke which he managed to cure himself. His wife died in 1828 and his profligate grandson managed to reduce the family to abject poverty.’The Great Wave’ solved Hokusai’s poverty problem. In his seventies he started to paint pictures. This was a development from his print work.
Hokusai was an adherent of the mystical Nichiren cult of Buddhism,which is reflected in his designs for temples and a whole section of a shrine which he painted himself. He believed that all life is connected and his scientific drawings of birds, insects and animals are evidence of these thoughts. To him Mt. Fuji was sacred and it was considered by many to be a deity.
The Exhibition alternates groups of paintings with groups of prints which all focus on Hokusai’s interest in nature, history and spiritual subjects. We learn much about him from the Exhibition.
The star of the Exhibition is the woodcut print, ‘The Great Wave’ which shows a towering, threatening wave arising with all the power which only the sea can summon, ready and poised to fall upon three speedy skiffs bearing fishermen seeking a catch for the market. It has space, perspective and distance.
The fear in this print is mollified by the gentle spray that falls from the wave with its sublime, snow like flakes descending to join the snow cap adjoining Mt Fuji on the far horizon.
Hokusai collaborated with specialist craftsmen who put his original drawing on a cherry wood block. This was very skilled work. Different blocks were needed for each colour. The blocks tended to wear away which affected later prints adversely.
Symbolism in the ‘Great Wave’ has been much discussed.
Does the wave represent Hokusai’s problems in life? Does Mt Fuji represent his religious cult? Historians have observed that the wave looks back to Mt Fuji from a position furthest out in the Pacific from the Japanese coast. This could represent Japan’s changing attitude to the rest of the world which wished to trade with her, but she wished to remain aloof. Hokusai has brought distant horizon into this work which had not hitherto been seen in Japanese art.
Other prints include poppies, birds, domestic scenes and landscapes. ‘Red Fuji’ has abstract patterns for water, rain and smoke. Hokusai’s work was discovered by the the Modernists twenty years after his death and is said to have influenced them.
Hokusai’s early paintings appear somewhat static and the tonal shading shows Western influence. They are mounted on long textile hangings. ‘The Seven Lucky Gods’ is amusing and a set of ghost story book illustrations are lively and his notebook of people in national dress is impressive.
The Exhibition ends with seven large paintings of varying subjects in different styles. The enthusiastic brush strokes of the demon enjoying his feast are eye catching. A friendly tiger and a prayer scene evoke abstract impressionism.
However, Hokusai’s woodblock prints overshadow the paintings, one especially, ‘The Great Wave’ towers above them all.
This is a memorable Exhibition.
It is essential to book.
Telephone no: 0207 323 8181
Great Russell Street.
Until 13th August. 2017
( Closed 3rd – 6th July )