Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

"From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with."

-Hokusai Katsushika

Hokusai is without a doubt, Japan's most famous artist in the Western World; his iconic image of a colossal, almost fantastical wave  imperiling slender fishing ships in a choppy sea, whilst the ever present Mount Fuji looms low on the horizon, (better known as The Great Wave or, more correctly, The Great Wave off Kanagawa) is, without a doubt the most famous Japanese-produced image. Hokusai himself, when Japan finally opened to the Western world in the 1860s, came to be a startling influence on everyone from Vincent Van Gogh to the post impressionists, whilst his sketchbooks, or manga remain a tremendous influence on today's Japanese comic artists-or manga-ka.

Yet, as this landmark exhibition at the British Museum reveals, not only is there more to Hokusai than that perilous wave, and his mass-produced woodcuts of Japanese landscapes, but that much of his best work was produced in the last twenty years of his life, from 70 to 90, where his quest not only to be a truly spectacular artist, (to the extent that he himself wrote "
At a hundred and ten, everything--every dot, every dash--will live") but to be an immortal one drove him ever forward. The exhibition takes us through the tragedies and misfortunes of his life, as well as the artistic triumphs, to a final, jaw dropping pinnacle of artistic power that leaves even The Great Wave in its shadow.

Let us start as the exhibition starts; with Hokusai as a young man. The exhibition space begins with the above quote, and from here we are introduced to Hokusai's life up till the age of 60; for many artists this alone would be a sizable exhibition, but for Hokusai, it's a few choice images; some early sketches, early woodcut prints, chief among them, the image above. Dragons, of which this is one (forming a pair with a mythic Chinese figure) and which seem to act as an alter ego for Hokusai, come to be a common theme in his later work, and to compare this early dragon to pieces produced in the last few years of his life show how far he developed as an artist

Some background on this early period is required; Hokusai, born in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in 1760 to a family of mirror makers, and beginning to draw from the age of six, was soon apprenticed to a woodcarver, and then entered at eighteen, the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō-the work of this studio focused around Ukiyo-e, a form of woodblock printing that took in everything from pictures of famous courtesans, actors, figures from mythology and folk-tales, to travel, landscapes and nature.  To give a comparison in modern terms, Ukiyo-e formed everything from fashion, celebrity and lifestyle portraits to travel and wildlife photography. 

Shunsho's studio focused upon the former; their work portrays the courtesans, kabuki actors and prostitutes (and the line between all three is surprisingly blurred) of the Ukiyo, or literally "Floating World" of the red-light or pleasure district of Edo. Here Hokusai worked under Shunsho, often producing work at a prolific rate, for a few years, until the latter's death in 1793. But even before his mentor's death, Hokusai set himself out as a daring artist, not only setting the seeds for his most famous work in his focus upon landscape sketches, which follow Hokusai's early work in the exhibition, one of which features a prototype wave lapping across a beach, rather than crashing across a trio of boats, but also in his portrayal of people. Hokusai, in short, began to portray every-day life.

However, Hokusai's experimentation did not stop there; the next few images are, frankly, stunning, both in their use of western forms of colour and, crucially, as will become apparent, the use of western perspective. A short aside on this; eastern perspective, simply put, piles the features on top of each other-the horizon line far up the image, the nearest features at the bottom of the image-everything, in short, appears to be on a single flat plane. Western perspective, in comparison, places the horizon at any point in the image, as we shall soon see.  

Produced for the Dutch East India Company (still restricted to trade with Japan via Nagasaki-Commodore Perry would not sail into the very harbour that Hokusai may well have looked out upon whilst drawing until five years after Hokusai's death), the small collection of images are a strange and beautiful mix of Japanese themes and drawing style with Western-style backgrounds, perspectives and colouring, and show Hokusai as an adaptive and extremely talented artist. It is around this point that Hokusai takes up his iconic name, the first of many that show him as not only a spiritually minded man but one that, at forty, already thought of longevity-Hokusai, after all, literally means "North Studio"-immovable as the North Star, a fixed point around which the world flowed, for Hokusai to draw. 

Whilst Hokusai found fame, not only in his many commissions, including book illustrations, together with his iconic manga, the exhibition fast-forwards time a little, and from these first explorations in western perspective, through his climb to fame and prominence, comes Hokusai's salvation, and the central moment of this exhibition; the iconic Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. By the early 1830s, Hokusai had lost his second wife, and lived hand to mouth with his daughter, a fellow artist, suffered a lightning strike in the early 1810s, a stroke in the late 1820s, and hemorrhaged money from a grandson's gambling debts; as shown by the following quote, on the wall at the start of this second section, dominated by a beautiful photograph of Hokusai's beloved, and inspirational Fuji, Hokusai was a man desperate for a break:

"This spring, no money, no clothes, barely enough to eat. If I can’t come to an arrangement by the middle of the second month, then no spring for me."

-Hokusai to a publisher, 1830

The first few images of the Thirty-Six are comparatively restrained. The set, after all, acts as a form of travel guide, with Hokusai's publisher advertising them as such: 

These pictures show how the form of Mt Fuji varies from place to place...all different and particularly helpful to those studying landscape. 

 In all, Fuji looms large in the background, at points simplified down to a mere, but perfectly executed and tinted line; in front of it, birds at rest, boats at rest, a restful temple that copies the nigh perfect triangle of Fuji, all dominated by the new introduction of Prussian Blue ink, used throughout the series for linework. Perspective changes radically between the images; at points, Fuji stretches from top to bottom, at others it lies across a lake or marsh. Only in the last image, of wind-whipped messengers, does movement interrupt the stillness.

From images where Mount Fuji is a bit part player, we move to where Fuji is the undeniable star of the show, with not one but two copies of Fine Wind, Clear Morning, or, as it is better known, Red Fuji. The first is an astonishing earlier print; the red giving way to the blush of a rising sun rather than a bloody red, the sky pale, rather than mid-morning blue, Fuji itself haloed by blue, the other image later, more saturated. Together, they depict Hokusai as an organic artist, with several slight changes-this is not only Hokusai on the move, changing and editing his own image, the pale dawn replaced with almost blindingly bright blue, the dawn giving way to a Fuji crimson in the Land of the Rising Sun, but a key suggestion of the fact that many of Hokusai's most iconic images, after all, were mass produced, and, as with many processes, someone along the line cut corners.

You step past Red and Pink Fujis, and-

There it is.

Perhaps ten steps from the image of Hokusai's most revered in Japan (Red Fuji), little larger than the average magazine, phalaxed on one side by a duo of videos in which master craftsmen re-create it for a modern market, ever enraptured by the Old Man Crazy, and on the other by several more of the Thirty Six and a tantalising sketch of a boat upon a choppy sea, is hung perhaps one of the single most famous and influential images of the modern age. 

How does one go about talking about The Great Wave off Kanagawa? Entire programmes have been given over to talking about this one image, its influence is rivalled perhaps only by Van Gogh, (whose letter to his brother, mentioning a clawed sea and an entrapped boat)'s Starry Sky, and by Andy Warhol, whose silk-screened Campbell Soup Cans are as much a mechanical process as Hokusai's woodblocks would have been. Fuji, the focus of the images on the right, alternately observed, climbed and ignored, is pushed down and to the very rear of the image, Hokusai's western perspective studies realised utterly and completely.

Above Fuji, the spray seemingly transforming into snow that falls upon Fuji's eternally snow-capped peak, hangs the wave, the trough and crest acting as a frame for the mountain. Hokusai's manga, full of everyday life, from daiymo to samurai to prostitute, is full of motion, his illustrations for Chinese myths and Japanese tales even more so, but nowhere thusfar does he capture it as perfectly, as effortlessly as he does here. This is nature at its most powerful, and the three fishing boats can only brave the storm they find themselves in.

It's also an image full of symbolism; is Hokusai, desperate for money, down on his luck, making a point about himself? Is Hokusai saying, an edge of that "no spring for Iitsu" (as he called himself at this point), as a man in his seventies, to his art, "I am these fishermen, thrown on the whims of the sea and only my beloved Fuji, my talisman, my source of the immortality I so desperately need if I am to become an artist who can truly draw, can help"? Possibly. Perhaps, though, Hokusai thought of himself as the mountain itself -the only fixed thing, the only part of the image that is not boat or spray-strewn sky or churning sea. Perhaps, simply, Hokusai is saying: "I may suffer tragedy, or disaster or illness. But if I can draw, and paint, then the North Studio continues. What I have done to this point is merely preparation for this work."

One turns the corner, Fuji at your back, your eye constantly drawn back, unconsciously to the wave and the mountain, and enter the period of Hokusai in his eighties, where nature, landscape and commercial work, together with artist guides, experiments in cursive and more painterly works, and even a return to more poised portraiture, best summarised as work in which Hokusai observes the real world, are juxtaposed with the imagined China, the supernatural, the mythical and the ghoulish. Throughout all of this, including a later, and arguably even more organic seascape involving Fuji, Hokusai's work only grows in quality, even his unfinished work vibrant and lively and almost alive with motion. His heroes are more poised, his landscape work even more accomplished and organic than before, his every-day lives precise character portraits.

Around another corner, and we come face to face with Hokusai drawing, well, himself, as a bluntly real figure, swaddled with blankets and with a bottle to piss in at his feet-whilst it's not focused on particularly in this exhibition, Hokusai's sense of fun occasionally comes to the surface, particularly when it's aimed squarely at  himself; one only has to look at the self-deprecating name he takes at the age of 74; Gakyo Rojin or Old Man Crazy to Paint, as though Hokusai is dismissive of himself thus far-yet, from his own notes, this is a man who wants to live as long as he possibly can, writing simply
When I reach eighty...I hope to have made increasing progress...at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine
state in my art
In quick succession, we are greeted by not thirty-six (or even the expanded forty six that collection eventually swelled to), but one hundred views, then three self-portraits of an older, but still incredibly dynamic Hokusai, one gesturing wildly, chatting to an unseen figure-this is the old man we may have met had we been in early 19th century Edo, always sketching, always learning, even as a man approaching eighty four. And with him, Oi, his devoted and equally accomplished daughter, whose work is placed to the side, adjacent to her beloved father's, a sketch of them both by another artist showing their life as transient, living in one of a number of messy chaotic rooms. We turn and are   greeted, once again, with a wave, now utterly colossal, nothing but wave. 

And still Hokusai pushes himself, as he approaches his nineties, declaiming "Let me live to be a hundred and I will be without equal!" By now, however, Hokusai has arguably had the single largest tragedy of his life, as least as an artist, with a fire in 1839 destroying his monumental (so large in fact they had to be pushed in a cart) collection of sketchbooks, sketches and drawings. In the wake of the fire, Hokusai simply stopped producing woodblock prints, and turned to what would be his final work. Sealing his work now simply with the character for "one hundred", as though each piece would, in some talismanic way, bring him a few months or years longer to live, a year or so closer to perfection, Hokusai now worked entirely with ink and paper, to spectacular results

Yet, there is some incredibly poignant way in which Hokusai works in the last few years of his life, revisiting his beloved Fuji, returning to dragons, tigers, figures of myth and story. Hokusai is painting his greatest hits, one more time, with more skill, more technical brilliance, more understanding than ever before. Dragons glare out from dark clouds, tigers wander through falling snow. Even in the months leading up to his death, Hokusai is outdoing himself.

Two dragons, painted mere weeks apart, seem to sum up his art perfectly-whilst one (the dragon above) was not on display during my own visit, I'll talk about both. The first seems like a more accomplished take, with decades of experience dividing them, upon the first dragon that introduced the exhibit; from highlights using the bare paper as the bright highlights of scales, to the dark clouds and heavy shadowing that billow around it. The tiger that compliments is also a recurrent theme, one Hokusai would explore one more time in an image of a motion-filled tiger in snow

The other, in short, acts as a epitaph for Hokusai himself; Fuji and the dragon finally coming together, on a dragon day, for a man born some 90 years previously in a dragon year; it is also an encapuslation of everything Hokusai ever created. In the foreground, western-style perspective, given a strangely eastern twist, a seeming lack of depth and yet a great deal of depth at the same time. Fuji dominates the image, starkly, almost shockingly white, jutting into the grey sky, and yet it is not the focus of this image; it's almost an anti-Fuji, a negative space where we have the shape of the mountain, but it fails to appear. Rising behind it, as with Hokusai's other 1849 dragon, is a column of smoke, but this dragon is almost a whisp against it. The dragon heads upward, to the top of the image. It rises from the mortal plane to the celestial.

Hokusai dies at ninety, less than three months after this image is completed; Oi's note is shown on the wall beside this final painting. Yet. Yet, Hokusai unquestionably gains immortality. Perry lands in Edo harbour, Japan is forced to open to the world. Japanese ceramics begin to be exported, and wrapped around them, to keep them safe during journeys to Paris, London, and the rest of Europe are woodcuts by Hokusai, Hiroshige and countless other artists from Japan; they're cheap, disposable, and in plentiful supply.

In November 1885, Vincent Van Gogh writes to his brother, Theo about woodcut prints he recently purchased, eventually creating a small exhibition of these so called Japonisme the next year, which feature in the background of one of his paintings, and then moves on to producing his own copies, though his initial encounter with the artform ironically came from Le Monde and The Illustrated London News. Van Gogh later writes of the impact, the terror that the "clawed" wave inspires. By the time Van Gogh paints The Starry Night, a work that, with its swirling sky, dark blue pallet, and where nature is utterly and completely dominant, draws clear parallels with Hokusai's work, in 1889, Hokusai, and Japanese woodblock (and indeed ink and paper) drawings have left their mark upon western art.

Hokusai's Wave rolls west, and before long, Hokusai's sketchbooks follow, becoming a blueprint for artists as varied as Monet, Klimt, Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec-a more stylized form of art, moving away from the naturalised forms of the realism movement to impressionism, art noveau, and even garden design.Debusey sees the image of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, and makes it the cover for his oceanic, and equally stormy and naturalistic 1905 Symphony, La Mer.

The Great Wave
becomes, very quickly, a shorthand for Japanese art, and in the intervening one-hundred and fifty years, it's spawned many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of copies, imitations, parodies, remixes-Fuji and the fishermen sharing space with Pokémon, Godzilla, surfers, mecha, the Wave itself transformed into bunnies, Cookie Monster, Elvis Presley's hair, computer circuitry, vinyl, lego. If you type "wave" into your iPhone, after all, you get this; a tiny, simplified Great Wave.


I turn, take one look back at the dragon rising over Fuji. The farewell, in short.

And I realise something.

You never really died, you "crazy old man to paint", you "north studio"

You got it, in the end.

It may not have been the last works, the works you painted after having seen so much of your work reduced to ash, after you and Oi stood, your paintbrush in hand, in the clothes you escaped in, the works you wanted to be some message to Fuji, to whatever other deities you believed in, to let you live just a few more years. Just to 100. Ten years you would fill with ink and brush, dragons looping in smoke, tigers in snow, and above all, Fuji, sacred Fuji rising above it all, just as it does, serene in the trough of a wave. And after that...well. 110, if the Gods and the Heavens permitted it. Then you'd be a true artist.

But you got it in the end.

You got your immortality. Not just in Japan, not just in the China you never visited but could only imagine. But everywhere. To many, you are Japan. A wave. A mountain. A few brave or crazy souls.

I step from the gallery, into the small gift shop, and from Hokusai's life, back into mine.
The Great Wave is, of course, everywhere, on socks, t-shirts, umbrellas, mugs, silk scarves, pillow-cases, even chocolate bars. Somewhere, in whatever afterlife Hokusai ended up in, I feel he's between wonder and slight confusion at all of this, muttering that this is merely the work of a 70 year old man, knowing so little about how to portray, to capture the world.

I buy a post-card of The Great Wave. A little cheaper than the original two bowls of ramen, but now, as several thousand inhabitants of Edo had in the early 1830s, as Vincent Van Gogh, and countless other artists of the late 19th century had, as Debussey must have had at some point, I have my own copy. Your works are everywhere, immortalized on paper, cloth, metal, ceramic, and in modern reproductions that, once again, rely on cut wood and Prussian ink. Your wave, it's still falling, and we, we are the people on the boats, forever riding it, still marveling at, and still inspired by, everything you did before it, and since.

Not bad for a crazy old man.


Popular Posts