Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave (at the British Museum 2017)

Theres a revealing image of Hokusai as an old man that gives us an insight into his character. He’s bent double, with a walking stick to hold up his frail frame; but on his face is an expression that we all know from those people who have lived long and endured a great deal, yet retain a childlike fascination for the world.

Katsushika Hokusai is arguably the most famous Japanese artist in history. In the west he is generally known to most people for one image: ‘The Great Wave’, produced relatively late in the artists’ life and part of a series called ‘Thirty Six views of Mount Fuji’. The fact that you’ve probably seen ‘The Great Wave’ adorning everything from fridge magnets to the sides of taxis, is indicative of its status as an artwork that’s transcended the world of art to become an international icon. ‘The Great Wave’ is one of those images (like Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ or ‘Mona Lisa’) that are instantly recognisable, yet not always looked at or considered for their artistic merit. It’s meaning condensed and totally removed from context. Although an early impression is included in the British Museum’s ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’, the clues in the name; as this exhibition sets out to present a more accurate account of the artist’s later life and work.

Hokusai’s varied career is considered thematically and chronologically; enlightening the spectator regarding his very personal artistic and spiritual quest to reach a higher level of perfection in his art. The works themselves are outstanding and innovative; as well as the product of an enquiring contemplative mind and a long life not without tragedy. Two of his wives died young and later much of his work was lost to a fire that nearly claimed both his life and that of faithful daughter and assistant Oyei.

The artist we know as ‘Hokusai’ was an extraordinarily prolific figure who in fact went by a number of different monikers throughout his career. In order to get a clearer picture of him, it is useful to consider the period in which he lived, as well as the huge changes that swept through Japan only a few years after his death. Working at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Hokusai was part of an incredibly vibrant and sophisticated cultural climate; that can be viewed in so many ways being as ‘modern’ before the modern era. For centuries the Shogun ruled a country that, although not existing in complete isolation, had heavily restricted foreign influence; thereby creating a unique society more reliant on itself. That aside, we know certain products and ideas did get through to Japan. Indeed many of Hokusai’s own works confirm this. For example in his use of imported Prussian Blue pigments or the group of paintings he was commissioned to produce for employees of the Dutch East India Company, that clearly demonstrate the artist experimenting with European styles of depiction.  Only a few years after Hokusai’s death came the Meiji Restoration and examples of his work found their way to Europe and into the collections of connoisseurs (not to mention the packaging of imported tea). There they became a potent source of inspiration for many significant artists and indeed whole movements during the late nineteenth century, including the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

“Gakyō Rōjin Manji” (The Old Man Mad About Art)

Hokusai’s early work had established him as a major artist, but this exhibition focuses on his later activity, during the last 30 years of his life. For him, art was a process of ceaseless learning. Japan owed the greatest cultural debt to China and in fact Hokusai was an expert in Chinese painting; both as practitioner and scholar. The lessons of which can be clearly seen in his art.

Despite setbacks and old age, Hokusai’s outlook in later life was positive and looked towards the future. Some indication of his state of mind can be seen by the fact that at this time, he charmingly signed his work ‘The Old Man Mad About Art’. It was his obsession, his solace and salvation.

Thankfully we know quite a bit about Hokusai, because many of his thoughts and ideas are recorded. Extracts of these are prominently displayed in the show and are useful in placing the works into context, shedding light on the artists personal beliefs. It is important not to overlook these when considering the art of Hokusai. In Japan, the perceived world could connect seamlessly with that of the spiritual world. And unseen forces are often embodied in the mysterious yet vivid animal forms that frequent his later works. Examples like ‘Red Shoki’ (‘the demon-queller’), which is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and a most powerful image to behold.

So many of the works displayed in ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’ look as fresh as the day they were printed, drawn or painted. In addition to representations of Mount Fuji and varied depictions of ‘The Great Wave’ itself are other landscapes, natural scenes, still lives, deities and figures. Many of these have never been seen in the UK before. Also included are the artists’s collaborations and notebooks. The complex narratives and exquisite compositions do require a fair amount of concentration on the part of the spectator to reveal their true depth and significance. But this level of perseverance is certainly worth the effort.

The exquisite refinement and precision of Hokusai’s brush captured the essence of his subjects to an astonishing degree. Also the woodblock process he developed allowed for an incredible concentration of visual information into a small area, keeping detail and colour sharp and vivid. Even after nearly two centuries, many of the prints retain these qualities. As do the paintings. It is also worth mentioning that the harmony and design of Hokusai’s pictures are never over complicated, giving each element ‘room to breathe’.

Many of the components in Hokusai’s prints act to reinforce the dynamic composition of certain works; such as angular architecture or ships’ masts. Flowing curves of water or faces. We see in many images an emphasis on pattern and texture that are a delight to the eye. Natural patterns may be derived from the landscape or the sea. From sinuous smoke or even the form and colour of clothing. And probably most famous of all, the spray at the head of ‘The Great Wave’, which varies in complexity in each version of the subject.

This same degree of subtle variation, depending on which version (or sometimes individual print) you are looking at, is apparent in one of Hokusai’s most beautiful and accomplished images on display. ‘Fine Wind, Clear Morning’ is another of the woodblock prints making up the ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’. It captures the light of that sacred peak at a very particular time of day, when the light turns the summit red. Hokusai achieves this rare and precious eloquence and refines it to the millimetre. Other versions of the same subject can look startlingly different and the sequence of impressions adds up to considerably more than the sum of their parts. The nearest equivalent might be Manet’s paintings of the exterior of Rouen Cathedral, that were produced decades after Hokusai’s death. ‘Fine Wind, Clear Morning’ is a testament to the artists incredible powers of observation and most beautifully arranged and composed. The life of a subject from two centuries and a world away is faithfully conveyed and startlingly familiar. A powerful example of ‘Ukiyo-e’ or the ‘Floating world’ school of art through which Hokusai worked. Often the compositions of ‘Ukiyo-e’ works emphasise familiar things seen from unfamiliar and oblique angles. Creating a visual harmony out of that lost urban world of backstreet Edo; hectic and stuff filled.

In addition to being an artist, Hokusai also published many brush drawing manuals to spread his artistic style. He considered he was passing on ‘divine teachings’ to his pupils.

One thing that was probably unavoidable considering the time of year. The rooms used to stage this exhibition were pretty crowded and given that it was a hot day, fairly uncomfortable. This meant it was harder to focus on the exhibits, which in most cases required a closer examination. You could realistically spend only a few minutes on each (if that). The muted lighting was for the works’ protection, but also added to the difficulty of viewing. Nevertheless I appreciate this was essential to preserve these beautiful works for future generations to enjoy.

I would argue that very few artists have had such a visual influence on the world around us as Hokusai. From design through graphics to fine art; the 21st century most certainly couldn’t look the same without his work. I also thought that this exhibition was successful in its aim to help redefine the artists’ work ‘beyond the Great Wave’ and felt it a privilege to have seen these rare examples at close hand. Despite feeling somewhat uncomfortable and claustrophobic during my visit, the compelling power of Hokusai’s work more than made up for it. ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’ runs from 25th May till 13th August 2017 at the British Museum.

(C) Gideon Hall 2017